UN refugee chief denies he sexually harassed worker

Ruud Lubbers, the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands and the serving High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations, has denied allegations that he sexually harassed a female member of his staff inside his Geneva offices last year.

Mr Lubbers, a highly respected figure on the world stage, confirmed, however, that officials from the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services have begun a formal investigation into a claim lodged against him by the woman last month.

The charge could prove devastating for Mr Lubbers, 65, and a source of new embarrassment for the UN. The world body is already facing a widening investigation into alleged corruption at the heart of the oil-for-food programme for Iraq that may have involved the illegal skimming of billions of pounds. The woman, who has not been named, is reportedly an American in her forties who has worked for the UN for 20 years.

She filed her claim only after agonising for months with lawyers at the refugee agency. Her complaint describes an incident that allegedly occurred when she and five male staff members at the agency were leaving a meeting in the office of Mr Lubbers in December last year. She told other staff members at the time that she was "shocked and horrified" by what had happened, The New York Times reported.

"The complaint refers to a formal meeting in my office on 18 December, 2003," Mr Lubbers said in a statement. "The meeting was attended by five other staff members. The complaint was filed on 27 April of this year, more than four months after the alleged harassment. In that meeting of last 18 December, there was no improper behaviour on my part."

Mr Lubbers, who is married with three children, led the Netherlands from 1982 until 1994. A father-figure of the Christian Democrat Party, he holds the record as his country's longest serving Prime Minister.

In 2000, Mr Lubbers was selected by the UN's General Assembly to head the refugee agency. The agency has some 6,000 staff members working in 115 different countries. His tenure was extended by the assembly last year and is due to expire at the end of next year.

The allegations against Mr Lubbers hit him as he arrived in Washington DC yesterday to hold talks with members of the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, about the increasingly desperate humanitarian crisis in western Sudan.

It is only two years since the refugee agency was bruised by revelations that some locally hired workers in refugee camps in West Africa had been been taking sexual advantage of children in return for promises of food. No UN staff members were implicated in a subsequent investigation. "There is absolutely no place in the humanitarian world for those who would prey on the most innocent and vulnerable of the world's refugees, the children," Mr Lubbers said at the time. "There must be zero tolerance."

Little headway has been made in the investigation into corruption inside the oil-for-food programme, under which sales of Iraqi oil prior to the toppling of Saddam Hussein helped buy the country food and medicines.

The coalition authority in Baghdad has asked the accounting firm Ernst & Young to look into the allegations, but members of the Iraqi Governing Council have demanded that they be allowed to oversee the investigation.

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