UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 20 -- The U.N.'s top refugee advocate resigned Sunday amid a festering controversy over allegations that he sexually harassed several female employees at the U.N. refugee agency.
Ruud Lubbers, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, proclaimed his innocence in a letter of resignation, saying that an internal U.N. investigation failed to "prove that sexual harassment has taken place."
Ruud Lubbers, the U.N.'s top official on refugees, continues to deny the charges.
Sunday's resignation marked the end of a long career for Lubbers, who served as the Netherlands' longest governing prime minister from 1982 to 1994. Lubbers, 65, lashed out at Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had cleared the Dutch official of wrongdoing, saying Annan had bowed to media pressure to force him out.
"For more than four years I gave all my energy to UNHCR," said Lubbers, who has led the agency since January 2000. "To be frank, despite all my loyalty, insult has now been added to injury and therefore I resign as high commissioner."
Lubbers's announcement followed a meeting on Friday during which Annan said he would pursue legal action to force the refugee chief from his job if he did not resign. At the time, Lubbers denied he had been asked to resign and vowed to remain until his term ends Dec. 31, 2005.
It remains unclear when Lubbers will step down. In offering his resignation, Lubbers said he would continue to be "available for the cause" until a successor has been appointed and confirmed by the General Assembly. That process could take months.
Annan's office issued a statement Sunday thanking Lubbers for the "devotion and the commitment he has shown to refugees" and said his decision to step down was in the best interest of the refugee agency.
"The Secretary-General is convinced that it 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," the statement said.
The controversy began when a 51-year-old female administrator filed charges against Lubbers in May 2004 for grabbing her by the waist at a December 2003 meeting at the UNHCR's Geneva headquarters. She said he pressed his groin against her.
An inquiry by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services supported the woman's allegation and charged Lubbers with engaging in a "pattern of sexual harassment" against female employees. A 15-page report on the inquiry, which cited four other women who said Lubbers had harassed them, concluded that the refugee chief had abused his authority with "intense, pervasive and intimidating attempts to influence the outcome of this investigation."
Lubbers denied the allegations, saying that he had put his arm around the woman's waist as a friendly gesture. "I call it familiar but certainly not sexual harassment," he said.
Annan had rejected the report's findings, saying the "complaints could not be substantiated by the evidence." But Annan and chief of staff Mark Malloch Brown called Lubbers in for a meeting Friday to ask him to step down.
U.N. diplomats said Lubbers had become a political liability for an organization already striving to demonstrate its willingness to hold senior officials accountable after damaging scandals involving corruption in a U.N. humanitarian program in Iraq and sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo.
Annan is bracing for a report next month by a U.N.-appointed panel probing allegations of influence peddling in the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program in Iraq by his son, Kojo Annan. Those charges have triggered calls for Annan's resignation from some legislators, including Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Annan's office noted in its statement that the secretary general "had accepted legal advice that the original allegations made against Mr. Lubbers could not be substantiated." But it added that "the continuing controversy has made the High Commissioner's position impossible."
"It's an extremely sad day for the high commissioner and for UNHCR," agency spokesman Ron Redmond told the Associated Press. Redmond noted that Lubbers, who was responsible for caring for more than 17 million refugees in 115 countries, received a salary of $1 a year for his work and paid for much of his own travel.
"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," Redmond said. "Each year over the past four years, he has given UNHCR about $300,000."