Politics & Policy

A Supreme Mess

One U.N. staffer petitions our high Court.

Even the United Nations’ own employees don’t trust it to deliver justice. Just ask Cynthia Brzak, an American who has worked for the past 26 years at the U.N. refugee office in Geneva, Switzerland. Despairing of a U.N. system that operates immune to any normal jurisdiction of law, Brzak, who two years ago brought an in-house allegation of sexual harassment, is now going outside the institution to ask for a hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“You have to be able to go somewhere and ask for justice,” said Brzak, reached yesterday at her Geneva phone number, “I’ve tried as hard as I could within the system.”

Enroute to this unusual step, Brzak’s case has evolved from an initial allegation of an unwanted grope by a former boss, then the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, to a far broader condemnation of systemic problems bedeviling the entire U.N. The motion and complaint sent by her lawyer this week to the Supreme Court seeks to challenge the diplomatic immunity of the U.N. itself, and alleges that in the U.N.’s handling of her case, a number of U.N. officials, including Lubbers and Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “engaged in a pattern of racketeering.” Queried yesterday for any comment, Annan’s office did not respond. Lubbers, who resigned from the U.N. last year, could not be reached.

It’s a long shot that the Supreme Court will do anything but dismiss this case out of hand, and perhaps that’s just as well. The legal argument raises questions about U.S. policy in dealing with the U.N., an arena in which quite possibly the only course worse than entrusting our fate to the diplomats would be to turn it over to the lawyers.

But even if this case never gets a hearing, there’s plenty in this lawyer’s discussion that the rest of the world might want to consider–especially the politicians now trying to reform the U.N., and the taxpayers being asked to fund it. Running to 180 pages, the pleadings highlight the fundamental problem that senior U.N. officials enjoy the privileges of sovereign immunity, but because the U.N. is not a sovereign state, they are spared the accountability that tends to come–at least in democracies–with running a national government. This is accompanied by page after page of sordid detail, much of it small-scale, but illuminating about the inner workings of the U.N.

The basic story goes back to a December afternoon in 2003, in a UNHCR conference room, as a staff meeting broke up. By Brzak’s account, Lubbers–then her boss–grabbed her and pushed his groin against her. Four months later, she filed an official complaint with the U.N. The U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services investigated, and in June, 2004, reported confidentially to Annan that Brzak’s allegation against Lubbers was “substantiated,” and that a number of other female staffers had come forward with allegations that indicated “a pattern of sexual harassment by Mr. Lubbers.” The OIOS recommended that “appropriate action be taken against Mr. Lubbers for misconduct and abuse of authority.”

But for eight months, Annan did nothing about it. Finally, in February, 2005, the internal U.N. report leaked to the press. Amid the uproar, Lubbers resigned. Annan’s spokesman told the press that Lubbers was leaving not because he had done anything wrong, but only to put an end to the “continuing controversy.”

Brzak alleges, however, that even after Lubbers departed, her troubles at the U.N. continued, as did those of a U.N. internal investigator to whom she had turned for help, Nasr Ishak, who appears in the current complaint as Brzak’s co-plaintiff. Brzak alleges that U.N. officials retaliated for her whistle-blowing by inflicting an array of punishing measures, including sidelining and shunning her on the job, illicitly releasing her confidential medical records, and refusing to restore her credibility following Annan’s public denial that her allegation had been sustained. The complaint includes the allegation, for example, that Annan “ignores the investigation report and U.N. procedures, which is manifestly illegal.”

“There’s no law applicable to these guys,” says Brzak’s lawyer, Geneva-based Edward Flaherty, interviewed by telephone. The U.N. top brass, he adds, “have figured out that they can do anything they want. The difference is that they do it in business suits, instead of with drawn guns.”

He’s got a point. And they don’t just do it in-house. They do it to American taxpayers whose good money has been turned into dirty U.N. procurement contracts. They do it to democratic nations–especially the U.S.–that lend to the U.N. a portion of their own credibility. They did it to the Iraqis, who had billions of dollars worth of rations grafted away under the U.N.-designed and -run Oil-for-Food program–for which not a single U.N. staff member has gone to jail, or even faced a court. Right now, in what almost qualifies as parody, the report of a U.N.-commissioned investigation into allegations of misconduct by the former head of the U.N.’s own Office of Internal Oversight Services is sitting, many months late and still secret, somewhere in Annan’s executive office. If it takes much longer for Annan to release the findings, it may be time to call for an inquiry into the investigation of the former investigator. But at the U.N., that still wouldn’t guarantee the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but (let alone justice). For Cynthia Brzak’s complaint, the Supreme Court may not be the answer; but the rest of Washington would do well to take up this case.

– Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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