UN Scandal: Accounts of meeting mired in contradiction

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The Independent Online

It should have been a routine meeting: the United Nations administrative professional could hardly have foreseen the coming scandal on a cold December morning at the Palais des Nations, an austere warren of offices in Geneva that houses the organisation's humanitarian operations.

It should have been a routine meeting: the United Nations administrative professional could hardly have foreseen the coming scandal on a cold December morning at the Palais des Nations, an austere warren of offices in Geneva that houses the organisation's humanitarian operations.

That afternoon the 51-year-old American with nearly 20 years of experience at the UN attended a meeting at the office of the 65-year-old former prime minister of the Netherlands, Ruud Lubbers, head of the UNCHRand among the most powerful men in the city.

She was the only woman. As the session, a humdrum discussion on human resources, closed, she rose with the others to leave.

In the words of the investigatorswho would later record her testimony for a confidential report, this is what happened next: "Without a word, he [Mr Lubbers] abruptly put both of his hands on her waist ... pulled her back towards him and took a step forward and pushed his groin to her buttocks and held her briefly in that position." Too shocked to say anything, she left the room.

In addition to Mr Lubbers, there were two other men in the room at the time. Their accounts contradict, and disagree with the UNHCR chief's own strident denial of inappropriate behaviour. One told investig-ators that his boss had been "inappropriately familiar" and had twice put his arms around the woman's waist. The other, a subordinate of Mr Lubbers, said he had seen nothing at all.

After much soul-searching and discussion with friends and colleagues, the complainant ­ described by colleagues as mature and professional ­ decided she was so angry and humiliated that she could not remain silent. She wrote a letter of complaint to the UN's internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).

In April 2004, the OIOS sent two investigators to Geneva. Over the coming months the inquiry would speak to a number of women, past and present employees or affiliates of UNCHR. Four alleged improper conduct on the part of Mr Lubbers, but none of these women had filed complaints or taken any other action.

These interviews led the OIOS to conclude there was a "pattern of sexual harassment" but, despite guarantees of anonymityfrom the OIOS, none of the women questioned would present signed testimony.

Upon being notified of the complaint, the investigators' report states, Mr Lubbers sought to discuss it with potential witnesses. "His actions may well have influenced the statements of at least two of his subordinates," the report concluded.

It says that Mr Lubbers arranged for the UNHCR inspector general's office to find out who was helping them, despite their request for him not to do so.

While the inquiry was still under way, on 28 May, Mr Lubbers issued a note to staff putting his spin on the complaint, in a move interpreted by a senior manager as trying to get them to "shut up". He also appointed a top libel lawyer to stamp on any attempts to report leaks from the investigation.

The OIOS concluded a damning report on the conduct of Mr Lubbers, which was sent on 24 May to Kofi Annan. The UN secretary general, already rocked by another scandal over the Iraqi oil-for-food programme, consulted lawyers outside the organisation. The UN chief concluded that the evidence was insufficient to take further action and the report was buried.

The accused former prime minister has let it be known that he will step down at the end of his term in 2005.

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