Following the apparent failure to protect Francesco Zambon from retaliation for speaking out, the World Health Organization (WHO) should reform its whistleblowing mechanisms, says the open letter addressed to the member states convening for the 74th World Health Assembly this week.
The WHO should also urgently conduct a thorough review of the reports of mistreatment and retaliation against Francesco Zambon himself.
The call is endorsed by 40 civil society organisations, including Whistleblowing International Network, Transparency International and the Government Accountability Project.
In August 2020, the WHO published a report led by researcher and scientist Francesco Zambon on Italy’s pandemic preparedness, which showed concerning results. The very next day, the report was withdrawn. Later, it was reported that the WHO Assistant Director-General Ranieri Guerra – who previously served as the Director of Prevention and Chief Medical Officer at the Italian Ministry of Health – pressured Zambon to suppress the report’s findings.
Initially, Zambon reported misconduct internally but he says his disclosures were ignored for several months. He subsequently resigned following unsatisfactory feedback, lack of protection, isolation and demotion that made his working conditions intolerable.
Civil society organisations are concerned by what appears to be the suppression of a scientific report of great public-interest value. The alleged retaliation against the whistleblower who reported his concerns highlights serious failures of WHO’s whistleblowing policy, which is an essential element of any institution's good governance.
The 74th World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, is meeting this week to discuss strategies for “ending the pandemic, overcoming the next”. Whistleblower protection and encouragement is fundamental to reach these goals and ensure accountability, good governance and public safety.
The lack of effective WHO whistleblowing protection can have a dangerous chilling effect on other employees of international organisations and will discourage WHO staff from speaking up when it matters in the future. The case also risks fuelling serious distrust in the WHO and UN systems.
The Whistleblowing International Network, Transparency International, Transparency International Italy and the Government Accountability Project will also continue to closely monitor Zambon’s case and to call for an independent review of his disclosures.
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