UN covers for official who harassed women

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The United Nations - which hosts a showpiece conference on women's rights in London tomorrow - is engaged in a high-level cover-up to stop publicity about a senior official guilty of harassing women colleagues.

The official, Mehmet Ulkumen of Turkey, is still in his post as the UN's head of protocol at Geneva. And although the UN's own disciplinary committee censured Mr Ulkumen for "harassment, aggressive and offensive behaviour", UN spokesmen continue to claim he was reprimanded "only" for matters relating to traffic violations.

Confidential UN correspondence shows that the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, personally intervened to reduce Mr Ulkumen's penalty from a six-month suspension without pay to six weeks. Some senior advisers to Mr Boutros-Ghali had wanted Mr Ulkumen sacked but they were disregarded. One woman who lodged the successful complaint against him for misuse of office over the traffic violations has, by contrast, recently been downgraded from her senior legal job - a move the UN says is unrelated to the case.

The Ulkumen affair follows on the heels of a series of incidents which senior women officials inside the UN say demonstrates a vast gap between the organisation's claims to support equality and the reality of life inside its own offices.

The issue is particularly embarrassing because the UN is hosting a conference on women's rights in Peking later this year. Tomorrow's meeting in London is intended as a publicity boost to acquaint the international media with the UN's commitment to female equality and its plans for the Peking conference.

A spate of recent harassment cases has raised serious questions about the treatment of women in the UN and their opportunities to win justice.

For example, a senior official at the World Health Organisation, Dr Emmanuel Eben- Moussi, is still in his post a year after the highest UN disciplinary tribunal found in favour of a woman employee, Gabriele Mussnig, who said he had ruined her career because she refused his sexual advances.

Only after questions from the Independent did the WHO disclose an internal review of Dr Eben-Moussi's status is belatedly under way - apparently to "consider" whether disciplinary action might be merited. Ms Mussnig won substantial damages and got another job but her case took five years to resolve. Another woman, Catherine Claxton, decided to fight a sexual harassment case after a senior Argentinian official assaulted her. She won eventually $200,000 - but it took her seven years.

Melissa Wells, who served as the UN's under-secretary for management until 1994, says she was involved in assessing the Ulkumen case and has conclu-ded "it seems not to be possible to discipline the UN's own senior officials in cases like this". She has now returned to a senior job in the US diplomatic service.

Women speak out, page 3