Top WHO scientist suspended amid claims of ‘misogynistic p---ing circle’

Dr Maurizio Barbeschi - Eduardo Munoz /REUTERS
Dr Maurizio Barbeschi - Eduardo Munoz /REUTERS

The World Health Organization (WHO) has placed a senior scientist on administrative leave following a series of complaints of a sexual nature, including an allegation he removed his trousers in the presence of a female colleague.

The Telegraph has learnt that Dr Maurizio Barbeschi, who led the agency’s Health Security Interface Unit and was a senior advisor to WHO executive director Dr Mike Ryan, was put on leave in late 2021 after a series of complaints were made against him – some stretching back 20 years.

An internal investigation is ongoing, but several of those who officially reported Dr Barbeschi in January 2020 are angry the UN agency has not moved to resolve the matter more quickly.

Former colleagues and WHO consultants described the culture within Dr Barbeschi’s team as a “misogynistic pissing circle” and it’s claimed his inappropriate behaviour had been an open secret for years.

They said the case calls into question the WHO’s “zero tolerance” commitment to sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour and demonstrates how the procedures for processing allegations remain “broken”.

“As far as I can tell, it doesn’t actually work,” said Dr Paul Rutten, a biotechnology expert who worked under Dr Barbeschi in 2019 and later lodged an official complaint about the behaviour he witnessed. “It drags on forever and ever…  it’s a broken process.”

Dr Maurizio Barbeschi - C-Span
Dr Maurizio Barbeschi - C-Span

The Telegraph has seen emails and documents specific to Dr Barbeschi’s case detailing the allegations made against him, and spoken to women affected by his behaviour – as well as former colleagues, WHO consultants and advisors. Many asked not to be named amid concerns for their careers and privacy.

Allegations against the Italian biosecurity expert, who joined the agency in 2003 after a stint inspecting weapons in Iraq, include that he:

  • Removed his trousers during a meeting in a hotel room with a female colleague in the early 2000s

  • Rested his hand on women’s thighs if they sat next to him in meetings; this happened so often that colleagues created an informal “management plan” to try to prevent him sitting next to younger women

  • Tried to hug and kiss a WHO consultant when drunk

  • Made at least one woman feel so uncomfortable that she quit her role

  • Was among a group who urged women to “go and put their bikinis on” in a meeting

  • Was abusive towards his staff more generally, shouting in their faces and telling them he “would destroy them” if they disagreed or disappointed him.

The allegations have come to light amid continued concerns about the WHO’s approach to sexual misconduct. Some say the agency has fallen “behind their peers” within the UN system.

In 2021, a WHO panel found that more than 80 workers under the agency’s direction sexually abused women during an Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Meanwhile the Associated Press reported in January that the organisation knew about a previous complaint of sexual misconduct against Dr Temo Waqanivalu, who leads the agency’s noncommunicable disease integrated service delivery unit, before he was publicly accused of assaulting a British-Canadian junior doctor in Berlin. The case is ongoing, and it is understood Dr Waqanivalu has denied all the allegations.

Dr Barbeschi has been described as “gregarious” and a “big personality” by those who know him. He has worked at the WHO for 20 years, gradually rising up the ranks, specialising in health security – including deliberate biosecurity threats.

He was manager of the agency’s Health Security Interface unit and became a senior advisor to the WHO’s emergencies programme during the pandemic. He is also an adjunct professor of global health security at Flinders University in Adelaide, according to his LinkedIn profile.

A former colleague told The Telegraph that Dr Barbeschi created an “old boys club” within the Health Security Interface unit, which often used freelancers on short-term contracts to carry out its work.

This created a situation in which the freelance staff felt unable to file complaints due to concerns they wouldn’t be re-hired in the future, sources say. One external advisor likened this environment to a “staffing caste system”.

‘He was preying on people all the time’

According to one woman who officially complained about Dr Barbeschi’s behaviour, the Italian would “make it well known he was very friendly with his immediate boss” and held the idea of a job over her, suggesting he could make that happen.

“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,” she told the Telegraph.

As Dr Barbeschi’s behaviour continued, multiple academics started to warn female interns about taking positions at the WHO where they could come into contact with him.

“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,” said one.

They added: “It got to the stage that we had a management plan – if he came into a meeting, we had to make sure he couldn’t sit next to the youngest, prettiest female in the room. He would do whatever he could to [do so] anyway, and somehow a hand always landed on the lap… it made people extraordinarily uncomfortable.”

Another claimed: “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.”

Maurizio Barbeschi - The Bulletin
Maurizio Barbeschi - The Bulletin

He also frequently talked about women’s appearances. In one incident, he reportedly asked an intern in her early 20s if her underwear matched her shoes. In at least one case, a consultant left a job she loved after “constantly receiving comments about her looks”.

Some of Dr Babreschi’s behaviour also went further. In the early 2000s, he arranged to meet a much younger female colleague in his hotel room. When she arrived, he said he’d be “much more comfortable” if he took his trousers off.

“He made me sit on a chair, then he sat on the bed basically in a t-shirt and his underwear,” the woman said. At the time, he did not report it for fear of damaging her career.

At a conference decades later, where Dr Babreschi was a “very senior” representative for the WHO, he attempted to hug and kiss a woman after consuming “half a bottle of whiskey”.

Dr Babreschi did not only target women. According to those he worked with, he took advantage of junior staff, and on several occasions made them buy him “dinner or swimming trunks”, promising to pay them back. He never did.

“[Some people who worked with him] suffered just general horrible harassment. He would scream in their faces, scream that he would destroy them,” one person with knowledge of these incidents said.

‘Palpable misogyny’

Dr Babreschi’s behaviour does not appear to be unique within the Geneva headquarters, nor the broader organisation.

According to a former male consultant at WHO Africa, the regional office operates like a “mediaeval court [where] your position depends entirely on access to senior management”. Within this, the culture is one where there is a “palpable misogyny”.

“Women’s voices – and I’m not just talking about sexual harassment or abuse, this is even if a women is making a technical point about something in a meeting – are ignored, talked belittled, marginalised,” he said.

He added that he found a female colleague in tears in her office on several occasions after being sidelined in meetings, despite her expertise.

Marcia Poole, a WHO spokesperson, said the WHO would not comment on the specific cases of Dr Barbeschi and Dr Waqanivalu, but that the agency is focused on better tackling incidents.

“Changing organisational culture takes time but we are making progress,” she said. “We are fully committed to… [ensuring] that no victim goes unheard or unsupported; no perpetrator goes unpunished; no member of staff has an excuse for misconduct or for inaction; and no partner is exempt from meeting our standards.”

Ms Poole added that Dr Matshidiso Moeti, head of WHO Africa, “encourages staff to speak up” or speak to her about concerns “as part of the efforts to transform the work culture at WHO”.

“Since she became regional director, the organisation has reached gender parity in its top leadership positions and has significantly improved its hiring practices to actively encourage qualified women to apply for positions,” Ms Poole added.

Dr Barbeschi was put on leave almost two years after complaints were first made - Denis Balibouse/REUTERS
Dr Barbeschi was put on leave almost two years after complaints were first made - Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

In Dr Babreschi’s case, a string of complaints about the scientist were collected by an external WHO advisor, and handed to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ then chef de cabinet in spring 2019.

In an email dated November that year, a woman affected was told that this individual was taking the allegations “seriously”. “[He] recognizes WHO’s history of mishandling of such concerns, and wants to find a way to do the right thing.”

As the process continued, Dr Tedros’ chef de cabinet passed the reports to the internal investigators. Several women decided not to pursue complaints via the official system after being told that their named testimonies would be directly shared with Dr Barbeschi.

“Anybody with any inkling of saving their career would never sign onto anything,” said one academic involved.

But several women did. Emails seen by the Telegraph show that these cases were passed onto at least three different investigators at various points.

“By the time we got to 26 August 2021, they said [in an email] they still hadn’t done an investigation – even though they’d known about it for 18 months. Which is complete madness,” one person said.

Then, almost two years after complaints were first made, Dr Barbeschi was finally put on leave. Investigators told a witness in November 2021 that he had been removed from managing anyone much sooner, but he’d been put on administrative leave more recently.

As of January 2023, four years after complaints were officially made, those involved have been told the investigation is still ongoing – and only gained this information after chasing WHO officials.

Backlog of cases

Two former WHO directors, who spoke to the Telegraph on the condition of anonymity, said cases such as this demonstrate how difficult it can be to fire people within the UN, but also how cases are suppressed to avoid bad publicity.

There are “a lot of constraints” on speaking publicly about cases, one said, as “like any organisation the leadership wants to keep that stuff buried and handled internally”. In many cases of this nature, organisations keep these cases private because the victims as well as the institution want it that way.

The new allegations against Dr Barbeschi have emerged following the WHO’s executive board meeting, where sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment were on the agenda.

According to a report, the agency has “continued to make progress” around introducing changes recommended after a review into how sexual abuse happened during the DRC Ebola outbreak, with 92 per cent of actions “completed” and 6 per cent “in progress”.

This includes a shift to a victim-centred approach, strengthening the investigative team, reforming the culture, introducing and encouraging reporting.

The agency’s spokesperson, Ms Poole, added that investigators are clearing a backlog of cases thanks to new resources, a benchmark of 120 days has been set to complete inquiries, and a dashboard has been introduced tracking misconduct cases.

“As confidence in the new system we’re putting in place grows, we are seeing an increase in the number of reported cases. In 2022 we received 107 complaints of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment. 75 investigations were completed and the remaining complaints are still being investigated. Where cases have been substantiated we will be taking action [and  perpetrators will face grave consequences,” she said.

Earlier this month, WHO employees were also told the agency was appointing members to its committee on “formal complaints of abusive conduct”. The panel, which was first announced following previous misconduct concerns, will include 15 staff members.

Dr Barbeschi was approached for comment by the Telegraph.

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