GENEVA — U.N. refugee chief Ruud Lubbers resigned in the face of sexual harassment charges yesterday, saying he was insulted at the way the case had been handled by his boss, Kofi Annan.
Just two days after insisting that he would stay in his Geneva post, Mr. Lubbers released a bitter resignation letter to the U.N. secretary-general in which he said he felt let down by an apparent change of mind by Mr. Annan regarding the case.
The complaints, by a 51-year-old female employee of the refugee agency, were investigated by the United Nations over the summer. Mr. Annan decided at the time that there was insufficient proof for action against the former Dutch prime minister.
However, on Friday, the United Nations let it be known after a long-scheduled meeting between Mr. Annan and Mr. Lubbers in New York that the case was not over and that Mr. Lubbers’ future as high commissioner for refugees was in doubt.
The complainant, an American, said Mr. Lubbers had groped her as she was leaving his office in Geneva after a meeting late in 2003.
London’s Independent said Friday that she had accused him of grabbing her and thrusting his groin into her buttocks and holding her in that position.
Mr. Lubbers, who denies the accusation, was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “This is made up. I think it must have just grown in her mind.”
“I ushered the woman out of the room with my hand on her back and that is all. … You might call it familiar, but certainly not sexual harassment.”
However, according to the newspaper, investigators with the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) said the groping was part of a “pattern of conduct.”
Mr. Annan said yesterday that the controversy swirling around Mr. Lubbers had made the official’s position untenable.
The secretary-general thanked Mr. Lubbers for his “devotion and commitment” and said he was pleased at the decision to resign “in the wider interest” of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Mr. Annan said he had accepted legal advice in the summer that the original complaints against Mr. Lubbers could not be substantiated, but added that “the continuing controversy has made the high commissioner’s position impossible.”
The Friday meeting between Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Annan coincided with publication of the Independent report, the first to detail the complaint.
“Now, in the middle of a series of problems and with ongoing media pressure, you apparently view this differently,” Mr. Lubbers said in his letter to Mr. Annan.
“Despite all my loyalty, insult has now been added to injury and therefore I resign as high commissioner.”
Mr. Lubbers’ visit to New York had spurred rumors that he would be forced to leave his post after Mr. Annan last month appointed Mark Malloch Brown, the high-profile head of the U.N. Development Program, as his new troubleshooting chief of staff.
The United Nations already is under fire for the scandal-tainted Iraq oil-for-food program and purported sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mr. Lubbers told Dutch television that he resigned in part to relieve pressure on Mr. Annan.
“The pressure from the persistent press reports became too much. It also plays a role, of course, that the secretary-general has a whole load of problems on his plate,” he said.
“There were obviously certain people who had an interest in allowing the report to leak as if it was truth.”
In the summer, the OIOS said complaints by the woman and three other female UNHCR staffers who subsequently came forward, constituted a prima facie case against Mr. Lubbers and recommended “appropriate actions.”
Mr. Annan rejected the report. His spokesman Fred Eckhard said Mr. Annan “did not say there was no evidence” but that “he found the allegations unsustainable on a legal basis.”
Further details of the OIOS report, published by the newspaper, included unnamed women in the UNHCR describing Mr. Lubbers’ gestures as far from innocent. Some women refused to file complaints, fearing reprisals, the report said.
In his letter, Mr. Lubbers noted that the initial complaint against him “could not be substantiated.” In one of the other three cases mentioned, the staff member had “adamantly refused to file a complaint,” he added.
The other two incidents cited by the U.N. watchdog were “either misconstrued or simply hearsay,” Mr. Lubbers said.
Mr. Lubbers, 65, was Dutch prime minister from 1982 to 1994. He is independently wealthy and was working at the UNHCR for $1 a year. He has donated his salary, estimated at about $300,000, and travel expenses to the United Nations each year.