15 November 2004

In a comprehensive report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (document A/59/359 dated 27 October 2004), it is indicated that investigators have concluded that UNHCR Ruud Lubbers sexually harassed a female staff member. A complaint had been submitted on 5 May. At the time, when the woman concerned stuck to her position, Lubbers emailed the staff that (in grabbing her behind) he had made "a friendly gesture." Is that how they say hello in Amsterdam?

Although the report clearly supports the complaint, it added that Secretary General Kofi Annan "who had reviewed" the written conclusion, decided that "the complaint could not be substantiated by evidence" and therefore closed the case. What makes Mr. Annan's position more unusual is that as a former UNHCR staffer who remains popular with his former colleagues there, he certainly knows how unpopular Lubbers is with the majority of those labouring at the central glasshouse in the midst of Geneva's Place des Nations. He may not wish to be constantly reminded of his time as Head of U.N. Personnel, but he should be specifically proud of it; for there is where he really started shining, through enlightened courageous positions, including some noted cases of sexual harassment.

Ironically, the same day the decision was uncovered, one of Mr. Annan's new appointees, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner (and former Rwanda Prosecutor who decided against looking for the crashed airplane's black box -- "case closed" too!) was telling the Security Council that Mr. Annan "has made clear the responsibility of every staff member and particularly senior managers" that there can be no tolerance for sexual exploitation. The Council was discussing exploitation of women and violence against them in conflict zones. Incidentally, during that debate, U.N. Population Fund Chief Thoraya Obeid sharply pointed out that "most perpetrators go unpunished." The most senior Arab woman at Headquarters went on to appeal: "We do not need a few good women sprinkled here and there...We need gender parity so women in power can stop abusers of power." Bravo, Thoraya.

When the story was picked up, some hurried explanation had to be made to selected media. In a Washington Post story, its experienced U.N. correspondent Colum Lynch quoted a U.N. official who was speaking on condition of anonymity "because of the sensitivity of the issue." The official (it couldn't be Fred) said: Lubbers "stoutly" (that must be Ed) maintains his innocence and "nothing is proved against him." Recognizing that such a tack was not that convincing, the "U.N. official" tried to explain that "confronting Lubbers could lead to a protracted battle that could damage the refugee agency which cares for more than 20 million refugees in 120 countries"! Poor refugees -- as if their fate around the world depended on Ruud Lubbers uncurtailed libido. There is some truth, however, in the fear by some officials in New York about the potential damage that a conflict with him could do to THEM.

Dutch troops were active peacekeepers in key controversial missions and -- like their Belgian neighbours -- reported home at the time when Lubbers was in the seat of power. He still has his clout. As Jimmy Durante used to say: "Da Nose Knows!"