By Philippe Mottaz
May 26, 2021
The Geneva Observer has learned that Transparency International (TI) and a broad coalition of organizations advocating for a more robust protection mechanism for UN whistleblowers have sent an open letter to the Seventy-Fourth World Health Assembly (WHA) urging WHO Member States to call for an independent review of the disclosures made by former WHO researcher Dr. Francesco Zambon in the case of the sudden and highly controversial withdrawal of a report about Italy's response to the pandemic. Dated today (May 26) and sent earlier this morning, the letter also demands the WHO reform "its whistleblowing mechanisms and ensure the independence of its justice system for future whistleblowers."
As we previously reported, the document, "An Unprecedented Challenge: Italy's first response to Covid-19," published a little over a year ago on WHO's EURO region website, was withdrawn after a few hours and never republished, even though it had been approved by the organization's scientific committee and amended. To this day, WHO maintains that the report was prematurely published and withdrawn because it contained "factual inaccuracies," an assertion contradicted by documents gathered by Italian prosecutors in Bergamo investigating why Italy's pandemic plan had not been updated since 2006.
Transparency International's strongly worded open letter was sent to the President of this year's 74th WHA, Bhutan's Health Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo. In addition to Transparency International, the open letter is supported by the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN), the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and more than 30 anti-corruption, public health, and whistleblower protection organizations and individuals.
"We are all deeply concerned about the case on public health grounds from two perspectives. First, we are concerned with what appears to be the deliberate suppression of a scientific report of great public interest value at the time it was published and still valuable for ongoing learning. Second, the alleged retaliation against Dr. Zambon for reporting his concerns about the report's suppression highlights serious failures of WHO's whistleblowing policy - an essential element of any institution's good governance."
The coalition's demand comes as civil society has been warning that freedom of expression and the public right to quality information was essential during a pandemic and, as the open letter states, "that those who expose harms, abuses and wrongdoings should be protected."
Documents reveal that on May 11, 2020, two days before the report was posted online, Dr. Ranieri Guerra, a Senior Adviser with the WHO detached to the Italian Ministry of Health, put pressure on Francesco Zambon, the WHO's Venice-based researcher who coordinated the writing of the report with a team of ten experts, to insert language claiming that Italy's preparedness plan had last been revised in 2016 when in fact it had not been updated since 2006. Guerra had no authority over the publication of the report. Updating the preparedness plan was, however, his responsibility when at the Italian Ministry of Health prior to being appointed to the WHO by its Director-General Dr. Tedros.
"You must immediately correct the text. (…) Don't mess with me with on this one and please no bullshit.(…) Sorry for the tone" Guerra wrote in his email, which he followed with an irate phone call to Zambon. According to knowledgeable sources who spoke to the Geneva Observer under the condition of anonymity, the relationship between the two men – while appearing cordial in some previous exchanges – had become strained from the moment the decision to write the report was made in March. The documents, now with the Italian prosecutors investigating Ranieri Guerra for "false testimony", show that Dr Tedros' envoy to Italy appeared from the beginning to be more preoccupied by his and WHO's relationship with the Italian government than by the report itself, whose main objective was to share Italy's experience and lessons learned with the world in the hope that other countries could be better prepared. "Writing such a history is certainly a good idea (…), I am sure it will also please the government," Guerra writes to Dr. Zambon on March 25. On April 14, in another email, he tells him that he has complete latitude to have his team write the report as they see fit. However, he thinks Zambon "should provide the Health Minister with a more detailed index" of what the report would contain so the "Minister can give his blessing” to this as well as having the funding for writing the report provided by a foreign country.
According to documents and confirmed by the sources contacted by The G|O, Zambon and his team accepted that the Italian government should be informed about the writing of the report as a matter of "institutional courtesy" but that the document itself should not be shared in order to protect and maintain the WHO's credibility and independence. Despite his public denials and in view of the documents in The G|O’s possession, it is hard not to conclude that Ranieri Guerra's interventions to have the document modified were anything else than a desire to protect his personal reputation.
His insistence that the pandemic plan had been updated – a claim debunked by a forensic expertise of the PDF file metadata– came on the same day as Italian public-broadcaster RAI was about to air a documentary revealing the information. Ranieri Guerra was trying to cover up what could be called a "dereliction of duty while his was in charge of prevention at the Italian Health Ministry," a WHO insider told The Geneva Observer. In his defense, Ranieri Guerra claims that the final responsibility to update the plan was not his, a determination that in the end will be made by Italian justice.
Pressure on Dr. Zambon was followed by intimidation as, according to the former WHO researcher, Ranieri Guerra told him during a phone call on that same day, May 11, that he would have him fired by WHO DG Dr Tedros if he refused to modify the document. The exchange prompted Dr. Zambon to immediately report the episode to WHO's Ethics Office and informed it that he was taking medical leave of absence due to "a threat email I received" from Assistant DG Guerra.
"The WHO's unresponsiveness to Dr Zambon's attempts to raise serious public interest issues, and the lack of a timely resolution of his complaints of retaliatory treatment can only have a chilling effect on other WHO staff, as well as those working for similar international bodies, discouraging them from speaking up when it matters. The case also risks fueling serious distrust in WHO and UN systems"
Several months later, WHO's Ethics Office responded that Francesco Zambon could not have been a victim of retaliation as he did not have a reporting line to ADG Guerra: “Therefore, ADG Guerra's alleged comments, while inappropriate, do not constitute retaliation(…)as defined by WHO policy." The same email to the former researcher states further that: “…you were advised that as there has been no retaliation against you at this stage," and that "therefore there is no need for protection." Transparency International's letter strongly condemns this decision:
"The WHO's unresponsiveness to Dr. Zambon's attempts to raise serious public interest issues, and the lack of a timely resolution of his complaints of retaliatory treatment can only have a chilling effect on other WHO staff, as well as those working for similar international bodies, discouraging them from speaking up when it matters. The case also risks fueling serious distrust in WHO and UN systems" the letter reads. (…)" The whistleblowing policies of the United Nations have been a long-standing cause for concern for international whistleblowing protection and anti-corruption and human rights experts.
In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression specifically recommended the UN and its agencies" adopt effective policies to enable greater public access to information and to protect whistleblowers." The open letter also refers to a report by WHO's External Auditor scheduled to be discussed during WHA74.
"We note with keen interest that our concerns and calls for reform have been echoed in the findings of the Report of the External Auditor, published May 17 2021 and scheduled for discussion on WHA74 preliminary agenda. The Report found a steep increase in the number of complaints of misconduct and retaliation and confirmed this should be a cause for concern for WHO management. Reported breaches of the WHO's Codes of Ethics and Conflicts of Interest more than doubled, and complaints of retaliation sharply increased from 7 (in 2019) to 19 (in 2020). The CRE received a further 20 complaints. The Report stated that an 'untenable' lack of human resources'...[h]ampers the cause of justice' and the resulting delays are particularly problematic given the large number of cases later found to be substantiated. (…) WHO should enhance its punitive and preventive measures, and urgently reduce delays in investigation and disciplinary action."
By Philippe Mottaz