15 March 2005

Was Ruud Lubbers really the longest serving Dutch Prime Minister? He certainly didn't look like it on Friday, 18 February, strolling down the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat in New York. In an encounter with the press, he looked more like Peter Ustinov practicing a pathetic comedy routine. The Netherlands had produced outstanding diplomats and politicians who ably represented not only their sophisticated and proud country but all Europe and the Western Group. He may have been jetlagged or taken an extra dose of painkillers, because he totally freaked his audience; and he certainly misread his own situation. He would have figured out the tea leaves a day earlier if he had read two highly pro-U.N. British dailies which produced extracts of obviously leaked reports indicating sexual harassment. An unusually colourful report in that day's New York Times by its usually docile U.N. correspondent had the markings of an inside job. Any experienced politician would have sensed the message: Hello, you're going to be fired, so slip in that resignation graciously or there's more to come. Instead, the formerly astute statesman from Rotterdam informed the press that his meeting with the Secretary General and his new Chief of Staff was about several issues and that the harassment question obviously came up but for only a few minutes. By then, word had already spread that Annan and Mark Malloch-Brown had "begged" him kindly to consider getting off the back of an increasingly vulnerable U.N. Knowing that a story was unfolding in front of their eyes, some reporters humoured him by asking for an enactment of his take on the events. The longest serving Prime Minister then proceeded to place his hand on the small behind of a somewhat embarrassed tall burly journalist, tapping it twice. He must have taken the amused smiles as signs of admiration so he proceeded further as curious onlookers leaving the building on a Friday afternoon wondered whether it was some sort of a prelude to a peculiarly New Yorkish week-end. He then went on stretching his luck by involving the adorable and utterly gracious Nanne Annan. He would touch her the same way he had touched his accuser, he said, adding that with other women he would be careful now, but as he knows her well, he will be touching her because "of the gentleman that I am." By then, if he was counting on any support from the 38th floor, he would have completely lost it. He also lost the encounter. Nanne Annan is not just the wife of the Secretary General. The very pleasant, thoughtful and sensitive lady happens to be a distinguished individual in her own right -- a judge, human rights advocate, civil society activist, and a creative artist. What was that man doing dragging her into this??

By Monday, Lubbers got the real clear message. If he did not resign, he will be subject to disciplinary action. What a sad exit for a man who clearly served his country loyally, who sincerely believed he was helping world refugees, but who did not wake up in time to smell the coffee.