(CN) – Two United Nations workers lost their bid to revive sexual harassment and retaliation claims against the UN and three former officials, including one who allegedly “pushed his groin” against a female training assistant after a staff meeting.
The 2nd Circuit said the international organization and its employees are entitled to “absolute and functional immunity.”
Cynthia Brzak, an American, and Nasr Ishak, a French and Egyptian national, worked for Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at his office in Geneva, Switzerland.
Following a 2003 staff meeting, Lubbers allegedly put his hands on Brzak’s waist, “pulled her back towards him, pushed his groin into her buttocks and held her briefly in that position before releasing her.”
On Ishak’s advice, Brzak notified the UN oversight office, which confirmed her complaint and recommended that Lubbers be disciplined. The report “also confirmed that defendant Lubbers had committed indecent sexual battery on at least three other females employed by or affiliated with the United Nations … during his employment with the UN,” according to Brzak’s lawsuit in federal court.
Brzak said the former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, ignored the internal report and publicly exonerated Lubbers, who resigned in 2005. Annan’s spokesman told the press that Lubbers hadn’t done anything wrong; he had simply resigned to end the “continuing controversy.”
Brzak claimed that UN officials, including Lubbers’ deputy, Wendy Chamberlin, retaliated against her by dumping an “unmanageable” work load on her, slashing her work budget, verbally harassing her and, later, withholding work. Ishak was allegedly denied promotions for which he’d been recommended.
U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet dismissed the case, citing the immunity protections of the Geneva Convention and the International Organizations Immunities Act.
The Manhattan-based appellate panel affirmed.
“As the district court correctly concluded, the United States has ratified the (Geneva Convention) which extends absolute immunity to the United Nations,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote.
The court said the treaty is “self-executing” and can be enforced in U.S. courts.
The plaintiffs argued that a grant of immunity would violate their constitutional rights, but the court quickly shot down that claim.
“Each of these arguments fails, as each does no more than question why immunities in general should exist,” Parker wrote. “The short — and conclusive — answer is that legislatively and judicially crafted immunities of one sort or another have existed since well before the framing of the Constitution, have been extended and modified over time, and are firmly embedded in American law.”
Brzak and Ishak “offer no principled arguments as to why the continuing existence of immunities violates the Constitution,” Parker concluded.