UN chief quits over sex abuse allegations

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The Independent Online

Ruud Lubbers tendered his resignation as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees last night, still insisting that he was innocent of the charge of sexual harassment of a female employee and blaming the international organisation for its handling of the scandal since details of the alleged offence were made public in this newspaper on Friday.

Ruud Lubbers tendered his resignation as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees last night, still insisting that he was innocent of the charge of sexual harassment of a female employee and blaming the international organisation for its handling of the scandal since details of the alleged offence were made public in this newspaper on Friday.

The former Dutch prime minister, who has held the top refugee job at the UN since 2001, informed Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, of his decision in a letter in which he said the loyalty and commitment he had brought to the job had been undermined by the behaviour of his superiors.

"For more than four years, I gave all my energy to UNHCR," he said. "Now in the middle of a series of problems and with ongoing media pressure you apparently view this differently."

But a statement from Mr Annan's office said the two men had discussed Mr Lubbers' "future in the organisation," in the light of published reports of sexual harassment. UN sources had said Mr Lubbers might not remain in his post.

Mr Lubbers was the subject of an internal investigation after a 51-year-old administrative employee in his office said he had grabbed her at the end of a meeting, thrust his groin into her buttocks and held her in that position. The UN's office of internal oversight services upheld the allegation and said the incident was part of a "pattern of conduct" by Mr Lubbers.

Four other women agreed to be questioned by the UN panel on condition of anonymity, saying they were afraid of "retaliation and public humiliation".

The report was not made public when it was issued last summer, and Mr Annan decided at the time not to take action against Mr Lubbers because the evidence, in the view of his legal advisers, was insufficient to proceed.

The issue roared to life, however, after the detailed report was obtained and published by The Independent. Mr Annan held a new round of consultations with his lawyers on Friday and issued a statement saying that he and Mr Lubbers had held a meeting to discuss the UNHCR chief's future.

Mr Lubbers initially responded to the leaked report by saying that he not only had no intention of resigning but planned to ask Mr Annan to extend his term beyond its scheduled expiration at the end of this year.

He told reporters that the allegation was entirely without merit. "I ushered the woman out of the room with my hand on her back and that is all," he said. "You might call it familiar, but certainly not sexual harassment." Of the office of internal oversight services' conclusions, he added: "It is a miserable report. There is no proof at all."

In his resignation letter, he continued in similar vein. "The complaint of sexual harassment could not be substantiated," he wrote. He also rebuffed the allegations of the other four women who came forward. "There was no retaliation at all," he said.

But officials at the UNHCR complained privately that there was an increasingly bad atmosphere at the organisation as a result of the continuing scandal. "It's like a black cloud that follows him everywhere he goes," said one.

The 65-year-old Dutchman clearly felt aggrieved that Mr Annan was not standing up for him. Indeed, his letter of resignation suggested that his departure had been actively encouraged by the secretary general. "To be frank, and despite all my loyalty," he said, "insult has now been added to injury, and therefore I resign as high commissioner."

Mr Lubbers was considered enough of a success in the job, looking after the world's 17 million refugees, that his initial three-year term was extended by two years on Mr Annan's recommendation. Overseeing a global staff of 6,000 in 115 countries, he watched over refugee programmes everywhere from Africa to Afghanistan.

He served as prime minister of the Netherlands for a record 12 years, from 1982 to 1994, overseeing a free-market transformation. His Christian Democrat coalition cut back public spending, deregulated industry and privatised a number of publicly held companies.

In an interview on Dutch television last night Mr Lubbers said he was innocent. He said: "All the reports have turned out to be hot air." But he said he was resigning because "the pressure from the press messages is continuing, the people that bring them out are continuing, and it's becoming too much."

A STUBBORN FIGHTER FOR THE EUROPEAN DREAM

As the corridors at United Nations headquarters filled with speculation last Friday that Ruud Lubbers, high commissioner for refugees, may be forced to resign because of the resurfacing of sexual harassment allegations against him, some who knew him shook their heads. His is a fighter, he is stubborn, they said.

He would have to be both those things to have built his unusual resume. Mr Lubbers' highest achievement was to become prime minister of the Netherlands in 1982, a job he held on to, without a break, for 12 years. He was the his country's longest-serving leader.

By the time Lubbers stepped aside, in 1994, he had become a figurehead in the powerful alliance of Christian Democratic parties, which together had steered the disparate nations of the European Union to ever-closer integration.

His enthusiasm for the European dream, realised partly by the signing in 1992 of the Maastricht Treaty, was not always shared by all of his peers. He clashed most frequently with Margaret Thatcher.

Altogether, he spent two decades in Dutch political service. He joined government in 1973 and became minister for Economic Affairs after working for years in the private sector for his family firm. After leaving the prime minister's office, he stepped back from the political limelight, mostly teaching development and globalisation, partly at Harvard University.

But the name Lubbers never vanished as a likely candidate to lead some international organisation, if not in the EU, then elsewhere. He was serving as head of the World Wide Fund for Nature when in 2000 he was confirmed by the UN General Assembly as head of the UN's High Commission for Refugees.

At the UNHCR, Mr Lubbers had his first three-year term extended for an additional two in October 2003.

His sudden departure will do nothing for morale at the agency. "It's an extremely sad day for the high commissioner and for UNHCR," Ron Redmond, the chief spokesman, said last night. "He's one of the hardest-working people I have ever seen, and what a lot of people don't know is that he has done it all for free. He has refused to take a salary."

COUNTDOWN TO RESIGNATION

18 December 2003: A female UNHCR employee says Mr Lubbers sexually harassed her. Inquiry is launched.

July 2004: Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, receives report and says complaint cannot be sustained.

16 February 2005: The Independent obtains the confidential report.

18 February 2005: The Independent publishes details of the report.

20 February 2005: Ruud Lubbers resigns.

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