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The World Health Organization logo is pictured at the entrance of the WHO building, in Geneva, Switzerland. Image Credit: REUTERS

Geneva: The World Health Organization has terminated the contract of its powerful Western Pacific regional director Takeshi Kasai following staff accusations of abusive and racist behaviour, a diplomatic source said Wednesday.

The WHO executive board called a two-day, closed-door special session at its Geneva headquarters to discuss the case of Japanese doctor Kasai, who was suspended after allegations first surfaced in January 2022.

"The regional director's appointment has been terminated", the source told AFP.

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A WHO letter said the decision was made "after careful consideration".

The WHO said the executive board meeting was scheduled to consider "the recommendation of the regional committee", which was held in the Western Pacific headquarters in Manila last week - also in private.

While the WHO did not say what that recommendation was, another diplomatic source told AFP that the Manila meeting had called for Kasai to be dismissed.

"Up to the 11th hour they were giving him the option to resign," but Kasai refused, one source said.

"The vote was very close, 13-11... There were a lot of phone calls behind the scenes," the source said, adding that Japan had tried to block a report on an investigation into the case from being published.

Headquartered in the Philippines' capital, the WHO's Western Pacific region covers almost 1.9 billion people across 37 territories.

Toxic atmosphere

A slew of accusations against Kasai emerged in January last year from staff past and present, in revelations first published by the Associated Press news agency.

Kasai, who denied the allegations, was accused of presiding over a "toxic atmosphere" in the Manila bureau with a culture of "systemic bullying and public ridiculing".

The staff, who wished to remain anonymous "for fear of retaliation", accused him of making "derogatory remarks to staff of certain nationalities", in particular local Filipinos.

They sent an email to member states on the WHO's 34-country executive board.

In the email, seen by AFP, the staff accused Kasai of "abusive and racist authoritarian leadership".

They also accused him of mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic and wasteful spending of donor contributions; abusing his power to secure his re-election; and nepotistic staff recruitment.

A few days after the revelations emerged, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged the organisation had been aware for several months of the concerns and had launched an investigation.

In August, the UN health agency announced that Kasai had been put on leave and temporarily replaced by WHO number two Zsuzsanna Jakab.

She will stay in post until an election to replace Kasai is held in October, the diplomatic source said.

Unlike other UN agencies, WHO's regional directors are quite powerful with a lot of autonomy. They are elected by member states in the region they govern, before being confirmed by the full membership.

Kasai had been in the post since February 2019. He was previously the region's number two and worked for the WHO for more than 15 years.