Turtle Bay

Multilateralists Gone Wild

It’s rare, to say the least, for a high-placed international civil servant to face criminal charges of sexual assault, as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s former managing director, now does, for allegedly attacking a chambermaid in a New York City hotel. But accusations of sexual misconduct in the upper echelons of global institutions are disturbingly common, ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 19: Former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn walks out of State Supreme Court during a recess on May 19, 2011 in New York City. A grand jury has indicted the former IMF leader in connection with an alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid. Strauss-Kahn's bail hearing was granted. (Photo by Richard Drew-Pool/Getty Images)

It's rare, to say the least, for a high-placed international civil servant to face criminal charges of sexual assault, as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF's former managing director, now does, for allegedly attacking a chambermaid in a New York City hotel. But accusations of sexual misconduct in the upper echelons of global institutions are disturbingly common, if not always widely publicized.

It’s rare, to say the least, for a high-placed international civil servant to face criminal charges of sexual assault, as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s former managing director, now does, for allegedly attacking a chambermaid in a New York City hotel. But accusations of sexual misconduct in the upper echelons of global institutions are disturbingly common, if not always widely publicized.

The United Nations has several skeletons in its closet, including Ruud Lubbers, the former refugee chief who was eased out of the U.N. for groping a subordinate. The International Criminal Court has Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor who came under investigation for an alleged sexual encounter with a journalist. The former World Bank has Paul Wolfowitz, the former World Bank President, who was forced to resign after a World Bank committee found he had violated ethics by awarding his girlfriend a substantial raise.

Indeed, the Strauss-Kahn case has drawn intensive public scrutiny to the private lives of those who manage the world’s most important multilateral bodies, revealing a system where the top officials often live by a separate set of rules. Clearly, many organizations have struggled to squarely confront their leaders’ sexual dalliances. Some institutions acknowledge that they have difficulties policing incidents that occur in the foggy realm between their officials’ private and public lives. The conduct in question is also rarely observed by independent witnesses, making it hard to determine what in fact happened.

But observers say the rules for addressing complaints at these institutions has traditionally played to the advantage of the boss, who often enjoys diplomatic immunity from local prosecutors. And institutional culture also protects higher-ups: within their own institutions, these masters of the universe enjoy excessive deference from the house watchdogs, who often have limited power to enforce their mandates.

“These are political appointees, a bunch of bankers and diplomats, who are not accountable to anybody: either local law or any sort of accountability within the system,” said George G. Irving, a former U.N. lawyer who now represents individuals on both sides of the issue. “These guys have their little fiefdoms and they can do whatever they want. It gives rise to a culture of impunity.”

Experts say that institutions are loathe to sanction officials at the highest ranks, fearing they could offend a powerful member-state or undermine public trust, thus jeopardizing the good work those institutions are otherwise doing. They seek instead discrete ways to ease malefactors off the scene. The accusers, meanwhile, often claim that their careers suffer in the aftermath, sometimes feeling they have no choice but to leave their jobs.

Christian Palme, a former press spokesman for the International Criminal Court, was fired by his boss, the court’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, after accusing him of sexually assaulting a journalist. Palmer made the allegation after hearing a tape recording of the woman telling a colleague that she had been sexually assaulted by Moreno-Ocampo. But a review of the case concluded the allegation was “manifestly unfounded” after the woman retracted the claim in a discussion with the investigators. But while Moreno Ocampo was cleared of the sexual abuse charge he was censored for wrongly firing his accuser.

Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, was goaded into resigning rather than face another formal U.N. investigation into his conduct. In 2004, Cynthia Brzak, an American employee of the U.N. refugee agency accused Lubbers of groping her at the conclusion of a 2003 meeting.

An inquiry by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services supported the woman’s allegations and charged Lubbers with engaging in a “pattern of sexual harassment” against female employees. It cited four other women who claimed to have been harassed by Lubbers.

The U.N.’s former secretary general Kofi Annan initially opposed the oversight groups findings, arguing that the “complaints could not be substantiated by the evidence.” 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.

Brzak, who pursued the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, claimed that her career has suffered as a result of her efforts to hold Lubbers accountable. The Supreme Court refused to review her case, effectively upholding a ruling by a lower court that Lubbers enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

Piroska Nagy, the woman who had a brief affair with Strauss-Kahn, also moved on. Nagy said the relationship was less-than-consensual, but she declined to participate in an internal investigation to determine potential wrongdoing, saying she lacked confidence in its independence. “Because I did not fully trust the internal processes at the Fund, I declined to cooperate with the fund’s initial investigation,” Nagy wrote in a memo on Oct. 20, 2008, just days before the investigation concluded.

An internal IMF report, cited by a report in the New York Times, found there were few restraints on top managers, and that IMF guidelines permitted romantic relationships between senior officials and their subordinates. “The absence of public ethics scandals seems to be more a consequence of luck than good planning and action,” the memo reported.

Earlier this month, before Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, the IMF issued new guidelines that determined that romantic relationships between managers and subordinates constituted an inherent conflict of interest, and that one of the two should be required to find a new post.

The United Nations secretariat has a similar policy in place, according to Farhan Haq, the U.N.’s deputy spokesman, who said “there are clear rules in the U.N. Secretariat against relationships with subordinates.”

Joan Elise Dubinsky, the U.N.’s chief ethics officer, also served as the IMF’s ethics chief when Strauss Kahn came under investigation for his relationship with Nagy.[Note: an earlier version incorrectly claimed thatDubinsky did not respond to a request for comment. Her office did leave a message on my cell phone before publication, which I did not notice.] 

It is difficult to assess how prevalent sexual abuse is within the U.N. system or how effective the U.N. is in addressing it because the U.N. does not compile figures from its many humanitarian and development agencies. The rare case in which the U.N. has actually fired a senior official for sexual harassment involved a woman, Carina Perrelli.

Perrelli, a Uruguayan national who served as the U.N.’s top election official, was forced out of her job after the U.N. personnel department accused her of presiding over an office that tolerated sexual harassment, and creating an “offensive” work environment in which “sexual innuendo is part of the fabric” of the workday.

George Irving, Perelli’s lawyer, said he believes his client, who clashed with her superiors over the U.S. role in Iraq, was pushed out for political reasons, citing the U.N. need to be seen as tough on sexual harassment after facing criticism for going soft on Lubbers.

Irving says the U.N. is undergoing a reform of the internal administration system, which over time, should impose greater accountability by providing judges with greater authority to judge cases. But for the time being, “there is still an impediment to holding political appointees accountable; they will allow them to resign if the case is too strong. My impression is that they have adopted a policy in which they are willing to enforce the rules at the lower levels.”

Bea Edwards, International Reform Director for the Government Accountability Project, said “recent experience” shows the dispute tribunal is taking effective steps to make the environment more equitable than it has been historically.

But Irving — whose office is in Salem, Massachusetts – cautions that there is a real danger of sex harassment becoming the “new witchcraft of the 21st Century, where anyone who doesn’t like their boss can point the finger and the accusation is enough to assume guilt.

Kemal Dervis, the former Turkish Foreign Minister who was considered a top developing world candidate for the top IMF job, pulled out of the race shortly after the New York Times revealed that he had once had an affair with a woman who now worked at the IMF. The article furnished no evidence that the relationship constituted an abuse of power.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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