U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has promised quickly to replace High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, who resigned in the face of sexual misconduct charges. Mr. Lubbers' ouster is part of a wider effort to bolster the world body's battered image.
In a letter to staff at the U.N. refugee agency headquarters, Secretary-General Annan says Mr. Lubbers' resignation does not mean he is guilty of sexual harassment. At the same time, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard made clear the allegations made against Mr. Lubbers made his position untenable. "While the secretary-general has accepted legal advice that the original allegations made against Mr. Lubbers could not be substantiated, the continuing controversy has made the high commissioner's position impossible. He is therefore pleased the Mr. Lubbers has made the decision in the wider interest of the high commission for refugees," he said.
The sexual harassment charged was filed last year by a 51-year old American woman employed at the refugee agency headquarters in Geneva. An internal investigation determined that she had a case. The secretary-general, in reviewing the facts, initially decided to take no action.
He apparently changed his mind and called Mr. Lubbers to New York Friday for a talk. But in an encounter with reporters afterwards, the former Dutch prime minister denied having been asked to step down and vowed to stay on.
He accused internal U.N. investigators of producing what he called a "miserable report" filled with "insinuations" but no proof. He said the secretary-general's initial decision to dismiss the case had been dictated by what he called his "convincing" rebuttal.
"It was convincing because there were two witnesses in the room who clearly saw I ushered the lady out of the room with my hand on her back and that was all, this you can call familiar but certainly not sexual harassment," he said.
On Sunday, however, Mr. Lubbers said he would step down as soon as a successor is named. He lashed out at Mr. Annan, saying the secretary-general had bowed to media pressure to force him out.
The decision to seek Mr. Lubbers' resignation months after he was effectively exonerated is widely seen as the work of Secretary-General Annan's chief of staff Mark Malloch Brown.
Mr. Malloch Brown, a public relations expert, was brought in late last year from his position as head of the U.N. development agency. Since then, he has taken bold action to address several crises facing the world body, including the oil-for-food scandal and the charges of widespread sexual abuse of children by U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo.
Spokesman Eckhard Tuesday described Mr. Malloch Brown as a "close confidante" of the secretary-general, with broad powers. But he denied that the chief of staff was behind the ouster of Mr. Lubbers.
"I don't think that's an accurate reading at all if you know the secretary-general and how he operates, his choice of Mark Malloch Brown reflected his sense that the United Nations needed to get up front and more aggressive in defending itself against an increasingly hostile segment of the media and the political spectrum. Mark Malloch Brown is a very outgoing personality," he said.
Mr. Malloch Brown's public relations offensive includes an article that appeared on the opinion page of Tuesday's editions of the Wall Street Journal under Secretary-General Annan's name. The article acknowledges failures by the United Nations, but defended the organization's role as being "of vital importance to humanity".
Among its successes, Mr. Annan pointed to the leading U.N. role in recovery efforts after the December tsunami, as well as its work in helping to organize the elections in Iraq last month.