UNITED NATIONS — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld the tenet that the United Nations is above the law, refusing to question the world body's legal immunity in a sexual harassment case involving one of the UN's top former officials.
The U.S. justices left intact a lower U.S. court's finding that the UN and UN bosses are "absolutely immune" in attempts to sue over sexual harassment allegations.
The decision comes despite a finding by the UN's own internal investigators that Ruud Lubbers, former chief of the UN's refugee agency, had indeed "engaged in unwanted touching" of staffer Cynthia Brzak following a December 2003 meeting in Geneva. They also found he had intimidated staff in a bid to derail the internal UN probe.
One of the UN investigators additionally revealed after retiring to his native Australia that the probe into Lubbers' conduct even uncovered allegations he groped actress Angelina Jolie shortly after appointing her as the refugee agency's "goodwill ambassador."
Lubbers, prime minister of his native Netherlands from 1982-1994, has long denied all sexual harassment allegations — but resigned as UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005 as the scandal continued to make headlines.
Brzak sought help from U.S. federal courts after Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General at the time of the alleged incident, refused to act on the investigators' recommendation to discipline Lubbers.
"There is no policy reason why an organization that is made up of sovereign states has more immunity than any of the individual sovereign states that make it up," Edward Flaherty, Brzak's Geneva-based U.S. lawyer, said in a phone interview.
"If he had still been prime minister of the Netherlands at the time, he would not have anywhere near the same protection as he has had serving as a UN official. Because of where Cynthia happens to work, her assailant is beyond the law."
Brzak, a U.S. citizen, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court with French/Egyptian national Nasr Ishak, a senior UN colleague who had encouraged her to file her initial complaint against Lubbers, now 71.
"Both are still with the UN," said Flaherty. "Both are still facing discrimination for whistle-blowing."
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Monday that the UN's record of how it handled the matter six years ago "speaks for itself."
Brzak, in her 40s at the time of the alleged incident, wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama in August to request his support for the Supreme Court petition.
"Since the United Nations internal justice system is not independent or credible, the use of diplomatic immunity to prevent UN staff access to national legal systems is morally repugnant and . . . unconstitutional," she wrote.
She argued that granting victims access to national courts would serve as a "powerful nucleus" for sweeping reform of the world body, where scandals in recent years have included massive fraud in the multi-billion-dollar Oil-for-Food program that the UN operated in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in March Brzak couldn't sue, highlighting that a treaty confers broad immunity on the UN and its officials from lawsuits.
Annan, who appointed Lubbers in 2001, had the power to lift the diplomatic immunity that the UN's highest-ranking officials enjoy — but did not.
One clause in the March ruling suggested that Brzak might have had leave to take her case to a state court had the alleged incident occurred in the United States rather than in Geneva, site of UNHCR headquarters.
Current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has made no comment on the matter.
As UNHCR chief, Lubbers was responsible for 6,000 staff workers in some 115 countries providing protection to some 20 million refugees and displaced people.
Brzak had joined the UN more than 20 years before the alleged incident, and was working in staff training.
"He foisted unwanted physical attention of a sexual nature on a subordinate female staff member" and engaged in "pervasive and intimidating attempts to influence the outcome of the investigation," concluded the UN probe, conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Service.
Jolie continues to serve as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, and did not file a complaint about Lubbers' alleged encounter with her.
Staff who witnessed the incident told investigators that minutes before coming down in an elevator to be introduced to staff in the building's Geneva headquarters, Lubbers grabbed Jolie from behind, Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2007 from an interview with the newly retired Frank Montil, one of the former OIOS investigators.