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Lubbers bows out as UN refugee chief with plea to ‘turn the page’

Lubbers bows out as UN refugee chief with plea to ‘turn the page’

Ruud Lubbers says farewell to UNHCR staff
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers, who resigned on Sunday amid persistent controversy over allegations of sexual impropriety, bid an emotional goodbye to his 6,000 staff around the world today with a plea to turn the page and not dwell on the past.

“I saw a lot of misery during my time as High Commissioner, but a lot of wonderful things as well,” he told hundreds of staff gathered in UNHCR’s cavernous headquarters atrium in Geneva. “For me, it was a great time. And I think for you – even with all the difficult moments – it was a great time as well.”

He handed over temporary leadership responsibilities for the agency to Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin, who will work closely with Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane pending the appointment of a new High Commissioner.

“I don’t feel alone today, not at all. I’m not going away in anger,” Mr. Lubbers said of his resignation, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed as serving the best interest of UNHCR, its staff and the refugees it serves so that the page can be turned and a new chapter be started.

“No. I am going away with gratitude – gratitude for what you meant to me; gratitude for working together. I am absolutely sure that not only are the refugees wonderful people, you are, too,” Mr. Lubbers added, echoing Mr. Annan words. “We must now turn the page. Don’t dwell longer in the past. Turn the page. That’s what I ask you do to do. I’ll do it myself anyway.”

He said his “50 wonderful months” leading UNHCR’s global efforts to protect and assist 17 million refugees and others of concern were a privilege, and he thanked staff for their support during the last difficult 10 months, when the allegations swirled. He received several minutes of applause from staff lining all levels of the seven-storey atrium.

Throughout Mr. Lubbers has vigorously denied the accusations, dismissing them as a campaign of slander. The charges came from a UNHCR staffer who said the 65-year-old former Dutch Prime Minister sexually harassed her during a meeting in December 2003. On Sunday, Mr. Annan said in a statement that while he had accepted legal advice that the original allegations could not be substantiated, “the continuing controversy has made the High Commissioner’s position impossible.”

The ninth head of the UNHCR since its establishment in 1951, Mr. Lubbers served since 1 January 2001, when he succeeded Sadako Ogata of Japan.