U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

United Nations staffer Cynthia Brzak claimed that the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, had sexually harassed her. Despite the finding of an investigative panel in support of her claim, the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, overruled the panel’s disciplinary recommendations and dismissed the charges against Lubbers, head of one of the United Nations’ principal humanitarian divisions.

Summary of Event

The early years of the twenty-first century have in many ways been unkind to established institutions, taking their toll on the reputations of private and public bodies alike. International governmental organizations have not been spared such public tarring. In the world of public institutions at the global level, no image has been tarnished more than that of the United Nations. Indeed, the notoriety surrounding Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s response in the Ruud Lubbers sexual harassment case would almost certainly have been much less had it not been for the myriad scandals surrounding the United Nations at the time. [kw]U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges (June 2, 2004) [kw]Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges, U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi (June 2, 2004) Annan, Kofi Lubbers, Ruud Brzak, Cynthia Sexual harassment;and Kofi Annan[Annan] United Nations;Kofi Annan[Annan] Annan, Kofi Lubbers, Ruud Brzak, Cynthia Sexual harassment;and Kofi Annan[Annan] United Nations;Kofi Annan[Annan] [g]United States;June 2, 2004: U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges[03410] [c]Politics;June 2, 2004: U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges[03410] [c]International relations;June 2, 2004: U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges[03410] [c]Law and the courts;June 2, 2004: U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges[03410] [c]Sex crimes;June 2, 2004: U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges[03410] [c]Women’s issues;June 2, 2004: U.N. Report Reveals That Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dismissed Sexual Harassment Charges[03410] Schwebel, Stephen M. Sweet, Robert W.

These U.N.-involved scandals ranged from disclosures of massive mismanagement and corruption in the institution’s food-for-oil program in Iraq (including charges that the senior officer in charge of that program had taken bribes Bribery:Iraqi government from Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s government), to charges that U.N. peacekeepers and relief workers have used their positions to coerce sex from local citizens in Africa, East Timor, and elsewhere, to allegations that Annan’s son had been handsomely rewarded by the Swiss company for which he helped acquire a lucrative U.N. contract. Sandwiched amid these other scandals is Annan’s decision to dismiss the sexual harassment charges against Lubbers, the head of the U.N. refugee relief department, a move that instantly acquired scandal status of its own.

The story behind the scandal began when Cynthia Brzak, a high-ranking aide to Lubbers and a U.N. employee for a quarter of a century, accused Lubbers of having grabbed her and rubbed up against her from behind when leaving a 2003 business meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The charges were referred to the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS), which on June 2, 2004, released an in-house document that supported Brzak’s charges. Moreover, although Lubbers’s position was that Brzak had misinterpreted a friendly gesture, the OIOS report also noted a pattern of similar, past behavior by Lubbers and recommended his official censure. Lubbers had become the United Nations’ ninth high commissioner for refugees in January of 2001 and had paid his own salary while working for the United Nations.

Annan consulted American jurist Stephen M. Schwebel, a former head justice of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, who found that the evidence against Lubbers did not rise to the legal standard necessary for conviction in a court of law. On July 15, Annan, basing his decision on Schwebel’s finding, dismissed the charges against Lubbers as insufficiently substantiated by the evidence. Privately, however, Annan wrote a letter to Lubbers stressing his concern over both Brzak’s accusation and the pattern of behavior on Lubbers’s part noted in the OIOS report.

Had the matter ended there, the scandal would have never become public knowledge and no blight would have been attached to the generally distinguished public service career of Lubbers. In October, however, evidently dissatisfied with Annan’s handling of the matter, the OIOS included in the publicly released summary of the work it completed during the prior year its findings in the investigation into the charges against Lubbers and its recommendations on the matter. The media quickly seized on the story as yet another controversy engulfing the United Nations and its secretary-general. Annan’s alleged tolerance of sexual harassment at the highest level in one of the premier humanitarian divisions of the United Nations quickly acquired the proportions of a scandal.

Impact

The OIOS report’s release, and the subsequent firestorm of criticism that the United Nations received over the Lubbers matter, on the whole produced mixed results for the principal figures involved. Lubbers initially tried to retain his position, but only a few months later, on February 20, 2005, he resigned, arguing that the continuing press coverage of the sexual harassment charge against him made it impossible for him to do his job effectively. More scandalous was Annan’s letter to the refugee office staff the following day that called the Lubbers affair an “unwanted distraction” and that Lubbers had “not been found guilty of any offence,” a claim that was wholly incorrect. Topping off the scandal were Lubbers’s own words, deemed “appalling” by the OIOS. In his “farewell” to office staff, Lubbers said he had been “harassed” and “raped and raped and raped” through the investigations.

Insofar as the refugee office was at the time investigating rumors of sexual abuses committed by U.N. peacekeeping forces, including 150 charges of rape, sexual abuse of children, and the solicitation of sexual acts in Congo alone, Lubbers’s continuing status as high commissioner for refugees had by this time become not only untenable but also an institutional embarrassment to the United Nations.

Brzak filed a federal lawsuit against the United Nations on May 4, 2006, on the grounds of sexual harassment and alleged discrimination against her for having raised the issue. On the last day of April, 2008, U.S. District Court judge Robert W. Sweet dismissed her suit on the grounds that the United Nations had a long-established immunity from legal action in U.S. courts in general and in the area of employee-related issues in particular, which outweighed Brzak’s claims against the organization.

For Annan, the handling of the case remains another stain on his overall, generally commendable record of overseeing the increasingly vast operations of the United Nations around the world during his years as secretary-general. For the organization itself, however, the Lubbers case, combined with the companion controversies that involved the United Nations during the first decade of the twenty-first century, forced the body to undertake much needed reforms in overseeing the conduct of its permanent and contracted personnel in New York and Geneva and throughout its global operations. Thus, a Swiss consulting firm and other outside evaluators were hired to assess the performance of the United Nations’ overseas operations.

Likewise, a zero-tolerance policy was adopted on matters of sexual harassment. The policy was implemented most famously in the case of the December, 2005, dismissal of Carina Perelli, the director of the electoral assistance division of the U.N. Election Services Office, despite the praise that the division had won during her seven-year tenure for its work in such trying locations as East Timor and Afghanistan. Annan, Kofi Lubbers, Ruud Brzak, Cynthia Sexual harassment;and Kofi Annan[Annan] United Nations;Kofi Annan[Annan]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleck, Fiona, and Warren Hoge. “Annan Clears Refugee Chief of Harassment Accusations.” The New York Times, July 16, 2004. News article announcing Annan’s controversial decision to dismiss the sexual harassment charges against Lubbers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koestler-Grack, Rachel A. Kofi Annan. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. Part of the Modern Peacemakers series, this work provides a brief but useful introduction to Annan’s diplomatic career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meisler, Stanley. Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. As the title suggests, the focus is on Annan’s accomplishments as a peacemaker, both before and as the U.N. secretary-general. As such it offers a context for evaluating the place of his role in the Lubbers scandal in the context of his broad, generally distinguished career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiss, Thomas G., et al. The United Nations and Changing World Politics. 5th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2007. A good overview of United Nations operations from which to judge Lubbers’s contributions to the organization’s work and against which to evaluate his alleged harassment of Brzak.

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