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U.N. employee’s sexual harassment suit tossed

A federal judge, citing immunity grounds, threw out a lawsuit by a United Nations employee whose sexual harassment claims led to the resignation of refugee chief Ruud Lubbers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal judge threw out a lawsuit by a United Nations employee whose sexual harassment claims led to the resignation of refugee chief Ruud Lubbers, reasoning that the agency's immunity outweighs her claims.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Sweet tossed the lawsuit Tuesday, saying courts have "consistently held that employment-related issues lie at the core of an international organization's immunity."

A determination by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that the defendants were immune from this lawsuit left him nothing to decide, Sweet said.

U.S. citizen Cynthia Brzak, 55, had sued Lubbers — the former prime minister of the Netherlands — along with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and six others, saying she was grabbed in a sexual manner by Lubbers after a December 2003 business meeting in his Geneva office.

At the time, Lubbers was the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, in charge of one of the largest U.N. agencies, with a staff of 5,000 in 120 countries and an annual budget of about $1 billion.

Retaliation alleged
Lubbers resigned in February 2005 because of the attention caused by the scandal. Brzak continues to work for the U.N. in Geneva, although her lawsuit said she has faced retaliation since she made her harassment claims.

Lubbers has denied that he put his arms around Brzak's waist and pulled her back toward him as he pressed his groin against her.

An investigation by the U.N. watchdog concluded in June 2004 that he did engage in unwanted physical contact with Brzak, a subordinate. It also said it learned of new allegations against him during its probe, indicating a "pattern of sexual harassment by Mr. Lubbers."

The report by Dileep Nair, undersecretary-general for Internal Oversight Services, recommended Lubbers be punished for misconduct and abuse of authority after saying he engaged in "intense, pervasive and intimidating attempts to influence the outcome of this investigation."

Annan rejected the report's conclusions because he said the allegations could not be substantiated. At the time, he refused to fire Lubbers.

A message left with an attorney for the defendants was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Appeal planned
Brzak's Geneva-based lawyer, Edward Flaherty, said in a telephone interview that he was disappointed the court never got beyond the immunity issue. He promised to appeal.

"It's Alice in Wonderland law. The United Nations is the only organization that functions like this," he said.

Brzak has suffered since filing her claims against Lubbers, Flaherty said.

"She's been harassed, ostracized, denied meaningful work," he said. "If you did this in the United States, these people would be paying millions."