Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 6 News List

UN refugee chief's career threatened

HARASSMENT CHARGES The future of Ruud Lubbers' post as the UN overseer of refugees is in question as Kofi Annan tries to clean up the scandal-plagued world body


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan consulted lawyers on the future of Ruud Lubbers as UN refugee chief, clearly angered at the resurgence of allegations of sexual harassment against him, this time with graphic details.

There were growing indications Friday that Lubbers could be forced out as Annan tries to deal with other scandals including the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq and sexual abuse of children in the Congo by UN peacekeepers sent to protect them.

UN diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Annan was taking legal advice on the next steps following a meeting with Lubbers in his 38th Floor office which focused on his remaining 10 months as UN high commissioner for refugees.

Rumors that Annan wants Lubbers to step down intensified following publication Friday by the British newspaper, The Independent, of details of a previously secret UN investigation of allegations that Lubbers sexually harassed a female employee.

At an impromptu news conference after his meeting with Annan, Lubbers insisted that allegations of sexual harassment against him were "made up" and "slander," and said Annan did not ask for his resignation.

The defiant but relaxed UN refugee chief said he intends to complete his five-year term. "That will mean at the end of this year, January 2006, you will see a new high commissioner," he told reporters.

But a preliminary UN statement on their meeting, issued after Lubbers' press conference and in an unusually harsh tone, contradicted the refugee chief's version of events and left no doubt that his future hung in the balance.

"While some other issues were discussed between the secretary-general and High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today, their main focus was Mr Lubbers' future in the organization, particularly in light of recent developments -- including today's press coverage," the statement said.

"At this stage, the secretary-general does not want to elaborate further," it said.

Lubbers conceded that the sexual harassment allegations came up during his long-planned meeting with Annan, but insisted it focused on refugee issues.

"We, of course, spoke about the accumulation of problems on his plate, including this -- because this is not pleasant for the [secretary general]. He's not happy with this. We spoke about that in a very open, frank and transparent way," Lubbers said.

"But let me tell it very simply, UNHCR and its high commissioner is not a liability. It's an asset for the UN. It's one of the best-functioning parts," he said.

Annan has come under fire from the UN Staff Union for rejecting the investigation by the UN watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services known as OIOS, which concluded that Lubbers did engage in sexual harassment. The secretary-general concluded that the charge could not be legally sustained, but raised strong concerns about the incident and possible attempts to influence the investigation.

The Independent published the first detailed description of the woman's allegations, plus statements from four other women who didn't file official complaints but claimed they were sexually harassed by Lubbers. The UN investigators concluded that Lubbers' overall behavior indicated "a pattern of sexual harassment."

According to a report Friday evening on ABC News' "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," the OIOS report said Lubbers engaged in "serious acts of misconduct" involving "unwanted physical attention of a sexual nature" and "lacks the requisite integrity" for the job.

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