UNHCR Chief Asks Woman to Drop Harassment Case
Wednesday, July 07, 2004 9:40 AM

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has asked the staff member who accused him of sexual harassment to abandon the complaint, people familiar with the case said yesterday.

In a letter to the complainant, a 51-year-old American with 20 years of experience at the refugee agency, Lubbers also pledged that she would suffer no reprisals, the New York Times reports.

Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, has been under investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services since May 5, when the charges against him were filed. In an e-mail message to his staff later that month, he acknowledged the investigation and complained that U.N. officials were expanding their probe to see if there was a "broader context."

According to those familiar with the case, after the woman alleged to colleagues that Lubbers "grabbed her behind," four other female staff members told U.N. investigators of similar treatment.

The four other women's allegations reportedly appear in the investigator's final report, which Lubbers received in June and which Marie Okabe, a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, confirmed yesterday is now in New York pending final action.

Okabe declined to detail its contents or speculate on how Annan would react.

When the charge was filed in May, a senior U.N. official said Lubbers would have to resign if it were upheld.

In the May 28 e-mail, Lubbers acknowledged an incident with the 51-year-old woman but said it had been misconstrued. "I made what I consider, and I still consider to be a friendly gesture" to the woman after a Dec. 18 meeting with several officials. He offered an apology and said he "would have refrained" if he knew it would have been considered inappropriate.

Annan met with Lubbers yesterday at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. U.N. officials acknowledged the meeting but said they did not know if the sexual harassment case was brought up.

The case has garnered a great deal of attention in the Netherlands, and Okabe confirmed that Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, had communicated with Annan on the subject.

Lubbers served as Dutch prime minister from 1982 to 1994 and was selected to lead UNHCR in 2000 (Fleck/Hoge, New York Times, July 7).

Published in UN Wire, 7 July 2004, Copyright, National Journal Group 2004