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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Suspects ‘threatened witness’ in Oxfam sex investigation

Charity admits it needed to tighten up rules on ‘problem staff’ but scandal-hit director for Haiti still managed to move to another high-profile post

Oxfam has released a report detailing sexual exploitation, intimidation and exposed the failure of a plan to stop 'problem staff' working elsewhere. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Oxfam has released a report detailing sexual exploitation, intimidation and exposed the failure of a plan to stop 'problem staff' working elsewhere. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Three Oxfam workers investigated for sexual exploitation in Haiti threatened and intimidated a witness after a leaked report revealed details of the part-secret investigation, the charity revealed on Monday.

Oxfam released an 11-page report that said that the disgraced Haiti country director Roland Van Hauwermeiren admitted using prostitutes during an interview with investigators. Mr Van Hauwermeiren last week denied the claims.

The investigation led to the dismissal of four members of Oxfam staff and the resignation of three, including the country director, over allegations of sexual misconduct during the relief effort that followed the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Oxfam said that it was releasing the redacted version of the investigation report saying that it wanted to be as “transparent as possible” and recognised its previous failures.

Following a tip-off, investigators went undercover for four days before interviewing about 40 witnesses concerning the allegations, the report said. It was not clear if any of them were the sex workers.

While the investigation was continuing, a draft report was leaked to one of the suspect’s line managers.

“This resulted in 3 of the staff [redacted] physically threatening and intimidating one of the witnesses who had been referred to in the report,” it said.

The British premier Theresa May said the revelations of the intimidation were “absolutely horrific”. “This is exactly the problem that we see which means that all too often people don't feel able to come forward to report what has happened to them, the behaviour that they've been on the receiving end of," she told reporters in London.

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The report named only Mr Van Hauwermeiren as a suspect but said that he had “admitted to using prostitutes” at the Oxfam house in Port-au-Prince and offered to resign.

He was allowed a “phased and dignified exit” partly in recognition for the “significant contribution” he had made in his time with Oxfam, the report said.

The investigation also highlighted concerns that the charity was doing too little to prevent “problem staff” from moving to other charitable organisations.

It detailed a four-point plan to address the issue but Mr Van Hauwermeiren and others still went on to work for other organisations.

The former country director worked as head of mission for Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh. Action Against Hunger said it received no information from Oxfam about the scandal.

The report also investigated fraud, negligence and nepotism, according to the document. It concluded: “None of the initial allegations concerning fraud, nepotism, or use of under-age prostitutes was substantiated during the investigation, although it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under age.”

Oxfam said it had told the national governments of seven men involved in sexual misconduct after its report had failed to rule out the sexual exploitation of girls. It will be handing a copy of the report to the Haitian government today.

The charity has been left reeling by the allegations and the deputy chief executive for Oxfam in the UK, Penny Lawrence, has already resigned citing her shame about what happened on her watch.

The report showed that she was part of discussions about accepting the country director’s resignation along with Barbara Stocking, the former chief executive who has left the organisation and is now the president of a Cambridge University college for women.

Oxfam, which works in 90 countries including Afghanistan and Iraq, a week ago announced a package of measures to improve safeguarding, including improved recruitment and vetting and a new helpline for whistle-blowers.

But the damage-limitation exercise has failed to stop high-profile supporters condemning the charity, and concerns over a plunge in donations after it was accused of covering up the most damaging aspects of the case.

Oxfam is Britain’s largest international development charity employing about 5,000 people and with an annual income of £408 million, according to its most recently published accounts. Major charities could now face more stringent monitoring from donors in the wake of the scandal, according to analysts.