By Steven Edwards
United Nations above the law, Supreme Court rules
UNITED NATIONS – The United States Supreme Court has upheld the tenet the United Nations is above the law, refusing to question the world body’s legal immunity in a sexual harassment case involving one of its former top officials.
The U.S. justices left intact a lower U.S. court’s finding, which stated that the UN and UN bosses are “absolutely immune” in attempts to sue over sexual harassment allegations.
The decision comes despite the fact that the UN’s investigators found Ruud Lubbers, former chief of the UN’s refugee agency, had “engaged in unwanted touching” of staffer Cynthia Brzak after a December 2003 meeting in Geneva. They also found he had intimidated staff in a bid to derail the probe.
Mr. Lubbers, who served as Dutch prime minister from 1982 to 1994, has long denied all allegations of sexual harassment.
He resigned as UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005 as the scandal continued to make headlines.
Ms. Brzak sought help from U.S. federal courts after Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general at the time of the incident, refused to act on the investigators’ recommendation to discipline Mr. Lubbers.
“There is no policy reason why an organization that is made up of sovereign states has more immunity than any of the individual sovereign states that make it up,” said Edward Flaherty, her Genevabased U.S. lawyer.
“If he had still been prime minister of the Netherlandsuat the time, he would not have had anywhere near the same protection as he has had serving as a UN official. Because of where Cynthia happens to work, her assailant is beyond the law.”
Ms. Brzak, an American, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court with Nasr Ishak, a senior colleague, who had encouraged her to file her initial complaint against Mr. Lubbers.
“Both are still with the UN,” said Mr. Flaherty. “Both are still facing discrimination for whistle-blowing.”
Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman, said the UN’s record of how it handled the matter six years ago “speaks for itself.”
As the UN agency’s chief, Mr. Lubbers was responsible for 6,000 staffers in 115 countries, providing protection to 20 million refugees and displaced people.
Ms. Brzak joined the UN more than 20 years before the incident and was working in staff training. “He foisted unwanted physical attention of a sexual nature on a subordinate female staff member [and engaged in] pervasive and intimidating attempts to influence the outcome of the investigation,” concluded the UN probe, conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Service (OIOS).
One of the UN investigators has also revealed that the probe into Mr. Lubbers’ conduct uncovered allegations he groped actress Angelina Jolie soon after appointing her as the refugee agency’s Goodwill Ambassador. Ms. Jolie continues to serve as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, and did not file a complaint.
Staff who witnessed the incident told investigators that minutes before coming down in the elevator to be introduced to staff in the building’s Geneva headquarters, Mr. Lubbers grabbed Ms. Jolie from behind, Frank Montil, one of the OIOS investigators, told the Sydney Morning Herald after his retirement.