A senior scientist for the World Health Organization (WHO) has been placed on administrative leave in light of a series of complaints allegedly of a sexual nature, according to a report published Wednesday.
Dr. Maurizio Barbeschi, leader of the WHO’s Health Security Interface Unit and a senior advisor to WHO executive director, Dr. Mike Ryan, was put on leave in 2021 after complaints stretching back some 20 years were brought against him, The Telegraph reported Wednesday. An internal investigation into Barbeschi’s alleged behavior remains ongoing, but those who made the complaints are angry the UN-run agency has not solved the matter faster, according to the outlet.
Former colleagues of Barbeschi described the culture he allegedly created as a “misogynistic pissing circle” that was well-known within the agency for years, The Telegraph reported. Despite the WHO’s “zero tolerance” policy to sexual misconduct, Barbeschi and his alleged lewd actions were an open secret, according to the outlet.
I am so sorry and horrified to hear this and want you to know that @WHO has zero tolerance for sexual assault and we will do everything we can to help you. I truly hope you will report what happened to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please feel free to reach out directly to me. https://t.co/YMSWZ3z0H8
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) October 18, 2022
“As far as I can tell, it doesn’t actually work,” biotechnology expert Dr. Paul Rutten told The Telegraph of the WHO. Rutten filed an official complaint against Barbeschi after working under him in 2019. “It drags on forever and ever … it’s a broken process.”
Rutten is one of many people who have spoken to The Telegraph about Barbeschi’s alleged behavior. Emails, documents and conversations with those reportedly affected, as well as comments from former colleagues, WHO consultants and advisors, all confirmed the reports, according to the outlet.
Barbeschi joined the WHO in 2003. Since then, he’s allegedly taken off his pants during a meeting in a hotel room with a female colleague, tried to kiss and hug a consultant from the WHO while he was drunk, was the reason at least one woman quit her job, was part of a group of people who encouraged women to “go and put their bikinis on” and was generally abusive to staff, the outlet reported.
Barbeschi allegedly rested his hands on women’s thighs so often that colleagues created an informal management plan to prevent him from sitting next to younger women in meetings, The Telegraph continued.
“He’d always be very touchy-feely – touchy on the thigh, touchy on the bum, stroking your head. He would always say he was my angel, and that he would protect me. The whole time, I really needed a full time job – but he would keep you on the hook … I felt like I couldn’t say anything,” one woman told The Telegraph.
“I kept seeing 22 year old female interns getting the jobs of their dreams at WHO in Geneva, and then leaving the field due to the experiences they had,” another source told the outlet.
“He was preying on people all the time, even at meetings … so I started telling my interns, of course you’d want a job at the WHO, it’s a fantastic opportunity. But just be careful. Don’t go anywhere with Maurizio on your own. Let people know where you are,” another source said, according to The Telegraph.
Many male colleagues spoke out against Barbeschi in the outlet’s report. They said his alleged behavior made it almost impossible for women to be taken seriously in meetings and that women were belittled or marginalized, according to The Telegraph. (RELATED: REPORT: Strange New Virus With High Fatality Rate In China Has Infected 35 People)
The only thing that made me smile, and not because it’s funny, was the report that Barbeschi screamed he “would destroy” staff if they disagreed with or disappointed him. It’s my experience that men and women who say things like this usually have a pretty nasty time when it comes to karma, and always end up getting screwed harder than they could ever hurt anyone when the time comes.
The WHO’s press contact line was so badly organized that it was impossible to leave a message or speak to a representative, despite following all prompts and sitting on the line for what felt like an age. The WHO’s webpage dedicated to online contact forms for general inquiries shared a consistent error message at the time of writing.