Dutch see Lubbers as their Maggie Thatcher, a tough Conservative

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Indy Politics

When Ruud Lubbers was appointed as the ninth United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 1 January 2001, he was known as a wily politician, a learned economist and an impressive statesman. He had the perfect profile for the position: clever, experienced and, above all, impeccably respectable.

When Ruud Lubbers was appointed as the ninth United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 1 January 2001, he was known as a wily politician, a learned economist and an impressive statesman. He had the perfect profile for the position: clever, experienced and, above all, impeccably respectable.

Nobody could have predicted that this long and distinguished career would be overshadowed by allegations of sleaze and sexual harassment.

Mr Lubbers took up his post at the UNHCR, then celebrating its 50th anniversary as one of the world's main humanitarian agencies, at a hopeful time. His three-year term was extended by two years on the recommendation of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. Now heading more than 6,000 staff in 115 countries, Mr Lubbers soon became well-known on the international stage, overseeing UNHCR programmes in places such as west Africa, Angola and Afghanistan.

The allegations of sexual harassment are especially shocking to the people of the Netherlands, whom he had served as Prime Minister from 1982 to 1994 and who regarded their longest-serving premier as a Dutch Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Lubbers started his career as the manager of his family's construction business, later turning his attention to politics. After joining the Dutch government as minister for economic affairs in 1973, he led three successive, right-wing Christian CDA governments spanning 12 years. His terms in office were marked by cut-backs in public spending and far-reaching deregulation and privatisation, confirming him in the Thatcherite mould. But his government achieved international notoriety when, in 1983, it announced it would install nuclear-armed US cruise missiles in the Netherlands, a proposal later abandoned.

After leaving office, Mr Lubbers was vetoed by the US as a candidate to be the head of Nato. He entered the world of academia, lecturing at Harvard and at Tilburg University in his home country.

His term is due to end on 31 December. It must be a sore point for him that after a long and varied career, he may be remembered more for allegations of sexual harassment than for his political, social or diplomatic achievements.

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