Harassment, intimidation and secrecy - UN chief engulfed in sex scandal

By Kate Holt,Leonard Doyle
Friday 18 February 2005 01:00

One of the United Nations' most senior officials is likely to face fresh pressure to resign over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation after The Independent obtained a confidential internal report into the claims.

One of the United Nations' most senior officials is likely to face fresh pressure to resign over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation after The Independent obtained a confidential internal report into the claims.

Ruud Lubbers, the UN's high commissioner for refugees, was found guilty of misconduct involving sexual harassment by an official investigation carried out by the UN's watchdog, it can be revealed. The secret document has never before been released.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, took internal and external legal advice after studying the 15-page report on the allegations, before deciding he was unable to take action against Mr Lubbers. Instead, he issued him with a strong warning about his conduct.

As high commissioner, Mr Lubbers, 65, formerly the longest serving Dutch prime minister, is responsible for marshalling the aid effort for the world's 17 million refugees. The investigation ­ carried out by the UN's office for internal oversight services (OIOS) ­ began after a complaint of sexual harassment by a female employee at the refugee agency. She alleged Mr Lubbers placed his hands on her waist, pulled her back towards him and pressed his groin into her at the end of a meeting with male colleagues in Geneva on 18 December 2003.

In its note to the secretary general, the report says: "Mr Lubbers did engage in unwanted physical contact with a subordinate female staff member. New allegations that came to the OIOS's attention during the investigation were also examined and indicate a pattern of sexual harassment by Mr Lubbers."

It continues: "OIOS is also of the view that Mr Lubbers abused his authority as high commissioner by his intense, pervasive and intimidating attempts to influence the outcome of this investigation."

As part of their inquiry, the investigators, led by Dileep Niar, the under-secretary general for internal oversight services, learnt of several other instances of alleged sexual misconduct. Four women subsequently agreed to be questioned on condition of anonymity, saying they were afraid of "retaliation and public humiliation". They declined to make official complaints.

Woman A told the OIOS she was invited to Mr Lubbers' home with others to discuss work. She said, instead, she was alone with him, and he wanted to discuss only personal matters while sitting close to her and touching her in a sexual way. She left quickly because she felt he was trying to go further and she became afraid.

Woman B described an incident at a UNHCR function at which Mr Lubbers grabbed and embraced her, pulling her body against his. She was shocked and embarrassed, and pushed him away.

Woman C said Mr Lubbers had attempted to grope her. She had pushed him back, and threatened to slap him if he attempted to do the same again.

Woman D said Mr Lubbers twice made unwelcome advances and asked her to come to his hotel. She said Mr Lubbers told her he was "feeling lonely".

The revelations come at a time when the UN is under fire on many fronts ­ranging from the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq to sexual exploitation by peacekeepers of the very people who they were sent to protect in the Congo. A right-wing campaign in the US also threatens it.

The report on Mr Lubbers was handed to Mr Annan last summer. After legal advice, he told UNHCR staff in a letter that the complaint could not be sustained. But he did not exonerate Mr Lubbers and said he had carpeted him. In the letter, Mr Annan said that he had conveyed to Mr Lubbers "in the strongest terms, my concerns about the incident that gave rise to the complaint and about subsequent events during the investigation, some of which may have been construed as likely to influence the course of the investigation."

Mr Annan told the staff he had underlined to Mr Lubbers that staff had the right to make complaints about "all forms of misconduct and must be protected from any type of reprisal or retaliation against them".

The Independent gave Mr Lubbers 24 hours to respond to a series of questions arising out of our investigations. In a statement last night, Mr Lubbers said the OIOS report was confidential, and that it should have remained so. He said: "First, the complaint of alleged sexual harassment filed with the OIOS could not be substantiated. Neither of the two witnesses who were present in the room at the time of the alleged incident reported seeing sexual harassment. Regarding the 'four other cases', I was confronted by OIOS with details of only one alleged occurrence which in no way constituted sexual harassment. As I reported to my own staff in May 2004, there was no such complaint. In fact, I challenged OIOS to substantiate their claim of other cases, but they did not.

"I have criticised the OIOS report because it alleges 'a pattern of misconduct' without anything to substantiate this ­ contrary to your statement. One can only conclude that the claim of the 'other cases' is baseless. It is noteworthy that during the investigation, several UNHCR female colleagues came forward to vouch for my character and integrity but this expression of support was ignored by OIOS.

"The secretary general closed the case in mid-July 2004, after considering ­ as part of due process ­ not only the OIOS report but my own detailed response. He declared that he took all circumstances of the case into account, and decided the allegations could not be substantiated. Obviously, the secretary general considered my response convincing, and the allegations and OIOS accusations unfounded."

Mr Lubbers took up his post on 1 January 2001. Appointed to a three-year term, Mr Annan extended his tenure for another two years before the allegations were made.

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