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Odds Low For Success Of Legal Challenge To UN Diplomatic Immunity

Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has categorically denied the accusations.
Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has categorically denied the accusations.
On June 1, two UN employees involved in a sexual harassment suit against former senior UN officials filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the diplomatic immunity granted to UN officials.

The petition is the latest step in a legal case that has already been rejected by two lower U.S. courts.

Cynthia Brzak, a U.S. citizen, and Nasr Ishak, who holds French and Egyptian citizenship -- both employees in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva (UNHCR) -- claim that their careers suffered and they have been denied promotions as a result of a sexual harassment complaint brought by Brzak against Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch prime minister and former head of the UNHCR.

Wendy Chamberlin, Lubbers' former deputy, and Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, are also named as defendants.

Brzak claims she was sexually harassed by Lubbers in Geneva during a meeting in December 2003. Ishak encouraged Brzak to speak out.

When details of the case contained in a confidential UN report were leaked to the press in December 2005, Lubbers resigned, even though he rejected the accusations entirely.

Brzak and Ishak later sued the UN for sex discrimination in a U.S. court in New York, which dismissed the case on the grounds of diplomatic immunity. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in March 2010 affirmed the decision.

The case still continues to draw media interest because it sheds light on the rather secretive process of how the UN investigates internal complaints and the consequences for whistleblowers.

It has been known for years that because of the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by UN officials, complaints against them cannot go through the legal venues in the host country and are handled internally by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (UNOIOS).

As "The Wall Street Journal" noted last year:

"Many UN workers who have made or faced accusations of sexual harassment say the current system for handling complaints is arbitrary, unfair, and mired in bureaucracy. One employee's complaint that she was sexually harassed for years by her supervisor in Gaza, for example, was investigated by one of her boss's colleagues, who cleared him. Cases can take years to adjudicate. Accusers have no access to investigative reports. Several women who complained of harassment say their employment contracts weren't renewed, and the men they accused retired or resigned, putting them out of reach of the UN justice system."

But what are the chances for success in the legal challenge to UN diplomatic immunity presented by Brzak and Ishak through their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Not good.

David Marks, the vice president of the PR firm Outreach Strategies, which is handling publicity for the plaintiffs, tells RFE/RL that the chances the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case are "pretty low.”

The two lower courts unequivocally dismissed the case based on diplomatic immunity granted to UN officials in 1946. It doesn’t leave much room for legal ambiguity.

Besides, the U.S. Supreme Court is overflowing with petitions well beyond its capability. It receives thousands each year but only a handful of those are considered for review.

-- Nikola Krastev

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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