The UN's Hypocrisy on Women’s Rights

How can the agency fight sexual harassment if it doesn’t punish it in its own ranks?

The United Nations has been busy this past week celebrating International Women’s Day and convening a conference at UN headquarters in New York of the Commission on the Status of Women. A key focus of the Commission, according to the website of the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women, is “sharing of experiences and good practices with a view to overcoming remaining obstacles and new challenges.” Unfortunately, the one place where women will see ingrained bad practices in dealing with sexual harassment against women in its ranks is the United Nations itself.

A case in point involves a lawsuit brought by an American citizen and United Nations employee, Cynthia Brzak, who worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, in Geneva. She claimed that Lubbers improperly touched her after a December 2003 business meeting in his office. Lubbers resigned in 2005 because of the scandal. However, he does not have to worry about ever facing justice in a U.S. court because he has permanent immunity as an ex-United Nations employee. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on March 2, 2010 that the United Nations is absolutely immune from such a lawsuit, and that its former employees also have immunity.

If the United Nations’ leadership were serious about walking the walk itself, instead of preaching about gender rights to everyone else, the UN could have waived its own immunity and the immunity of its staff with respect to claims of sexual harassment acts by its employees - or, in this case, its former employee. That did not happen. Instead, reprisals against Brzak allegedly followed in the wake of her complaint and continue to this day.

Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General, ran interference for Lubbers even to the point of allegedly disregarding the findings of an internal UN investigation and exonerating him. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, is ducking the issue and has allowed the UN’s legal staff to vigorously assert the immunity defense rather than waive it.

Ban Ki-moon addressed the Commission on the Status of Women High-Level Event marking International Women’s Day, one day after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ immunity decision shielding the UN and Lubbers from liability came out. Ban Ki-moon said that as a son and husband, a father and grandfather to girls, and as UN Secretary General, it is his duty to fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment, which are fundamental to the very identity of the United Nations. He can start in his own backyard.

In light of all the attention the United Nations is bestowing on women’s rights during the conference of the Commission on the Status of Women and Ban Ki-moon’s self-described personal involvement with the issue, I asked his spokesperson, Martin Nesirky, whether the Secretary General had any comment on the latest development in the sexual harassment case against the United Nations and Lubbers. Not surprisingly, he did not. When I persisted on when we can expect a comment on this women’s rights issue, he replied with a riddle: “Do we know how long is a string?”

I addressed the same question to Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser to the Secretary General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. Oblivious to the irony of her specializing in gender issues and the advancement of women at the United Nations, she professed ignorance of the facts of the sexual harassment case against the United Nations and Lubbers. And she defended the UN’s use of immunity “to protect the interests of the organization.”

The fact is that the United Nations has a serious problem on its hands with sexual abuse and harassment cases, most notably in its peace-keeping forces, but at high managerial levels as well. Instead of serving as a role model on an issue that it purports to champion, the UN is fighting judicial accountability for the actions of its own employees.