- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

GENEVA — U.S. officials are accusing the U.N. refugee agency of a “whitewash” for failing to act against three employees accused of failing to prevent the sexual exploitation of Bhutanese women and children in Nepal two years ago.

Representatives of several other countries including Canada, Norway and Australia joined in criticizing the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for failing to act against the three supervisors despite a recommendation of disciplinary action from the agency’s inspector general.

The original investigation covered 16 cases of sexual exploitation of Bhutanese women and children, some as young as 5, in Nepal in October 2002.

The accused were two Nepalese government officials working for the global agency as well as male refugees working for three UNHCR-funded partner organizations.

In November 2002, the UNHCR inspector general at the time, Dennis McNamara, following an inquiry found three UNHCR staff members guilty of “gross negligence” for failing to prevent the exploitation and forwarded his report to the agency’s personnel department.

But after an internal administrative review that lasted more than 11/2 years, the agency this summer concluded there had been “no wrongdoing on the part of the staff members.”

It also came to the conclusion that “no instructions had been willfully disregarded, and that therefore the conduct of the staff members did not justify disciplinary action.” The findings remain confidential and no details have been provided on why the inspector general’s recommendation was rejected.

“To us this is not satisfactory,” Arthur E. Dewey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of the UNHCR’s ruling executive committee late last week.

Asked why UNHCR had declined to make more details available, Mr. Dewey said, “We continue to ask [High Commissioner Rudd Lubbers of the Netherlands] the same questions. We have to have accountability.

“As a major donor to UNHCR, we have a right to have accountability for the behavior of staff persons. This is part of my regular list of questions and consultations with the high commissioner. … So, I can assure you, this one is not forgotten.”

The United States provides about $300 million a year to the budget of the global agency, which looks after millions of refugees worldwide.

Speaking privately, a senior U.S. official familiar with the case called its handling “a whitewash.”

Mr. McNamara is now a senior official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Asked about the case, he explained that the procedure in such matters is for the UNHCR inspector general to recommend action to the agency’s personnel department. That department makes a final decision together with the high commissioner.

“The inspector general has no role in subsequent action,” Mr. McNamara said.

Senior diplomatic sources close to UNHCR said Mr. Lubbers had “played with the option of disciplinary measures” but in the end “was persuaded by personnel to draw the line” and not take any action against the three officers.

“UNHCR could have gone to a disciplinary action of some description,” said one UNHCR insider.

Norway, speaking on behalf of Nordic countries, told the executive committee last week there is a need for “increased transparency with regard to the inspector general’s work.”

Canada, Australia and the representatives of nongovernmental organizations expressed similar sentiments.

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