Sex: Do international bodies look the other way?

UNITED NATIONS Wed May 18, 2011 1:06am EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Whether IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is innocent or guilty of sexual assault, his arrest has raised questions about whether international organizations are soft on their top officials in such matters.

The scandal has broken at a time when private companies are becoming less and less tolerant of any sexual misconduct by their senior executives. A string of high-profile companies have shed their bosses in recent years over such issues.

Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, was arrested on Saturday while about to fly to Paris after a chambermaid at a New York hotel said he had tried to rape her earlier in the day.

His lawyer has said the French economist will plead not guilty, but the sensational incident has probably wrecked his hopes of running for president of France next year or of continuing to lead the IMF.

However the case turns out, critics say international bureaucracies may not be rigorous enough in their hiring standards, especially when who gets to be boss is decided at least in part by horse trading among governments.

Strauss-Kahn, who was backed by the European Union for his post, faced earlier controversy in 2008 over an affair with a female IMF economist who was his subordinate.

He apologized for an "error of judgment" and in an internal probe of the affair, the IMF executive board concluded that reports of previous extramarital entanglements had no merit in deciding whether he would be a capable leader.

At the IMF's sister agency, the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, who was nominated for the top job by then U.S. President George W. Bush in 2005, resigned two years later after a battle over his stewardship prompted by his involvement in a high-paying promotion for his companion.

TOUGH QUESTIONS

Such episodes are evidence for some of inherent weaknesses in selection systems.

Yasmeen Hassan, deputy executive director of women's advocacy group Equality Now and a former U.N. employee, said of the world body, "My sense is that when people get very high level appointments, they are pushed through by governments and the tough questions are not asked."

The IMF and World Bank are classified as U.N. specialized agencies but in practice the United Nations does not control them or appoint their leaders.

But the United Nations, whose leaders often say has a "zero tolerance" policy on sexual harassment, has had issues of its own. The best known involved Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister who became head of the U.N. refugee agency and was accused in 2004 by a U.S. employee of unwelcome touching.

Although an internal report supported the allegation -- which Lubbers denied -- then U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan ruled it could not be substantiated. Lubbers resigned in 2005.

At the Hague-based International Criminal Court -- not a U.N. body -- prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was accused by an employee in 2006 of sexual misconduct involving a female journalist in South Africa. A panel of ICC judges found the allegation "manifestly unfounded."

The United Nations says it is well aware it is under increased scrutiny over the conduct of its staff.

U.N. human resources chief Catherine Pollard said recruitment was "guided by a thorough and competitive selection and appointment procedure" and candidates had to disclose any arrests or detentions and reasons for leaving prior positions.

Senior and other staff had to complete training sessions on sexual harassment and abuse of authority, Pollard told Reuters in an email. "Inappropriate behavior of its staff can and often does reflect adversely on the (U.N.) Organization ... This is particularly the case for high-level officials."

PROTECT THEIR OWN

But not everyone is convinced. George G. Irving, a Massachusetts-based lawyer and former counsel to the U.N. legal affairs office, said that while background checks are extensive for lower level jobs, at the top level "it's certainly not transparent that they do that kind of vetting."

International organizations elsewhere defended their practices. In Brussels, EU commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen said the 27-nation bloc's code of conduct is "probably among the strictest in the world" and that its president and commissioners undergo "considerable scrutiny."

NATO officials said everyone except the secretary-general has to go through a very rigorous security clearance by national authorities. "This looks at everything and speaks to virtually everyone you ever knew," one official said.

Only one NATO secretary-general has been forced to step down -- Belgian Willy Claes, a former foreign minister, who resigned in 1995 over a Belgian corruption scandal in which he was eventually convicted of taking bribes.

The instinct of international bodies to protect their own, at least in public, contrasts with the abrupt exits in recent years of a number of private company bosses -- from Hewlett-Packard Co to BP Plc -- over sexual issues.

"Corporate boards are increasingly less tolerant of anything that's smacks, smells, looks like some degree of impropriety," said Linda Finkle of business coaching firm Incedo Group, based near Washington.

"As boards in the past did not take action for infractions, however large or small, it has come back to bite them, and so they're extra cautious now," Finkle said. But she said that in some government organizations she had worked with, "I'm often surprised at the total lack of accountability."

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Braden Reddall in San Francisco; editing by Mohammad Zargham)