Ruud Lubbers declared his innocence but indicated Secretary-General Kofi Annan had left him little choice.
GENEVA — U.N. refugee chief Ruud Lubbers resigned today over sexual harassment allegations, declaring his innocence but indicating Secretary-General Kofi Annan had left him little choice.
Annan accepted the resignation, saying the continuing controversy had made Lubbers’ position “impossible.”
Lubbers’ resignation came two days after a meeting with Annan in which U.N. diplomats said the secretary-general offered the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees two choices — resign or face suspension and charges of breaking U.N. rules.
It also followed a report Friday in the British newspaper The Independent with the first detailed description of the allegations by a woman employed by UNHCR and statements from four other women who didn’t file official complaints but claimed Lubbers sexually harassed them.
Lubbers, 65, initially refused to resign and insisted Friday at a news conference that Annan never asked. But after he left U.N. headquarters, Annan’s office contradicted Lubbers, saying the prime topic of the meeting was his future. U.N. lawyers then started preparing charges against him, U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
In his letter of resignation, Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, maintained his innocence, indicating that Annan had decided it was time for him to go.
“For more than four years I gave all my energy to UNHCR,” he said. “Now in the middle of a series of problems and with ongoing media pressure you apparently view this differently.”
“To be frank, and despite all my loyalty, insult has now been added to injury and therefore I resign as high commissioner,” Lubbers said.
Lubbers, who insisted the allegations of sexual harassment were “made up” and “slander,” told Annan he would be available to UNHCR until a successor is in place. His five-year term was scheduled to end on Dec. 31.
The agency’s chief spokesman, Ron Redmond, called it “an extremely sad day,” saying that Lubbers had “poured his heart and soul into this job over the last four years.”
“He’s one of the hardest-working people I have ever seen, and what a lot of people don’t know is that he has done it all for free. He has refused to take a salary,” Redmond told The Associated Press.
Redmond said Lubbers returned his paycheck to the agency and paid his own travel and other expenses. “Each year over the past four years he has given UNHCR about $300,000,” Redmond said.
Annan — facing numerous investigations of alleged corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program, a scandal over sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, and criticism of U.N. management from several quarters including members of the U.S. Congress — decided that Lubbers had become too great a liability.
U.N. diplomats said that message was first conveyed to Lubbers at a private meeting with the secretary-general’s new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, whose primary job is to improve U.N. performance and overhaul its management. Shortly after that meeting, Lubbers went to see Annan.
The secretary-general was “convinced that (the resignation) is in the best interest of UNHCR, its staff and the refugees it serves that the page be turned and a new chapter be started,” according to a statement issued by his spokesman today.
Although Annan acknowledged he initially had accepted legal advice that the allegations were unsubstantiated, “the continuing controversy has made the high commissioner’s position impossible,” the statement said.
Annan thanked Lubbers for “the devotion and the commitment he has shown” to helping refugees over the last four years.
Allegations first surfaced last year that Lubbers had made unwanted sexual advances toward a female employee. An investigation by the U.N. watchdog concluded that Lubbers engaged in sexual harassment, but Annan rejected its conclusion on grounds it could not be legally sustained.
The U.N. Staff Union criticized Annan’s decision and Lubbers’ continuation in the job has been a simmering issue for months.
The Independent’s headline story Friday said the U.N. investigators concluded that Lubbers’ overall behavior indicated “a pattern of sexual harassment.”
According to a report Friday on ABC News, the internal investigators’ report said Lubbers engaged in “serious acts of misconduct” involving “unwanted physical attention of a sexual nature” and “lacks the requisite integrity” for the job.
Lubbers said the report was biased and he rejected allegations that employees feared retaliation if they complained. He also denied an allegation by a female employee that he put his arms around her waist, pulled her back toward him and pressed his groin into her in December 2003.
“There were two witnesses in the room who very clearly saw that I ushered the lady out of the room with my hand on her back, and that was all,” he said Friday. “I call it familiar but certainly not sexual harassment.”
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.