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UN Refugee Agency Chief Faces Sexual Misconduct Charge


Secretary-General Kofi Annan is considering charges of sexual misconduct against U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. U.N. officials say Mr. Lubbers could be fired.

The 65-year-old former Dutch prime minister came to New York to meet Mr. Annan Friday. At an impromptu news conference afterward, he said he had not been asked to resign, and would not do so.

But Mr. Annan's office cast a different light on the meeting. A terse written statement said the main focus of the conversation had been Mr. Lubbers' future with the organization, particularly in light of recent developments.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Lubbers admitted he had been familiar and friendly with female employees at the refugee agency's Geneva headquarters. But he described the charges of sexual harassment as 'slander' and vowed to fight to keep his job. He rejected a reporter's suggestion that it might be better to step down to avoid potential damage to the refugee agency. "I don't think so because if the United Nations goes away to give in to slander, it's against principles of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and my people have given me lot of support, they know I'm effective with regard to refugees," he said.

Talk of Mr. Lubbers' resignation was touched off Friday when a British newspaper, the Independent, published details of a confidential U.N. investigation into the sexual misconduct charges against him.

The inquiry, conducted last year, concluded there was a "pattern of sexual harassment" in Mr. Lubbers' behavior. At the time, Secretary-General Annan declined to take action against him. A spokesman said Mr. Annan had determined the charges were unsustainable.

But the ruling outraged the U.N. employees union, which accused top administrators of protecting senior staff.

Mr. Annan responded with several changes in his inner circle of managers. Already under fire in connection with the oil-for-food scandal and allegations of sex abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo, the secretary-general persuaded the powerful head of the U.N. development agency, Mark Malloch Brown to take over chief of staff, with broad powers.

After speaking to Mr. Annan Friday, Mr. Lubbers suggested to reporters that the revival of the sexual harassment allegations might be part of an effort to improve the secretary-general's image. "We of course spoke about the accumulation of problems on his plate, including this, because this is not pleasant for the SG, (secretary-general) he's not happy with this of course, so we spoke about that in a very open, frank and transparent way," he said.

The U.N. General Assembly appointed Mr. Lubbers as head the U.N. refugee agency in 2000. His term expires at the end of this year. He has declined a $250,000 a year salary, and receives only a token pay of $1 a year.

Mr. Lubbers served as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1982 to 1994, making him the country's longest-serving post-war leader.