The Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) resigned last Wednesday in light of an inquiry into corruption and misconduct allegations, reports Reuters.
Pierre Krähenbühl, who took office in 2014, rendered his resignation to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as widespread coverage of the scandals involving his management engulfed the UN agency. Christian Saunders, a veteran British UN diplomat, has been appointed as the officer in charge of the agency for the interim period.
According to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, the conduct report charged UNRWA’s top management with nepotism, discrimination, and sexual misconduct. It specifically highlighted Krähenbühl’s appointment of his mistress as a “Special Advisor”, a post he created specifically for her. This post was funded by the Swiss Foreign Affairs Ministry from 2015 to 2018, included salary and travel expenses.
The ethics probe also scrutinized the conduct of officials who left the agency after denying the allegations. It referenced abuses such as a senior aide using her influence to secure her husband employment at the agency and another where a top aide was accused of abusing his authority by mistreating staff.
The probe followed the United States’ decision in 2018 to halt its contribution of $360 million per year to UNRWA, reports Al Jazeera. Several donor countries, including Switzerland and Belgium, suspended funding to UNRWA over the recent allegations. The agency provides support to 5.5 million Palestinian refugees, reports The Guardian.
These scandals are bad news for UNRWA, which is already under criticism by American and Israeli governments. However, Krähenbühl denies the allegations, claiming that the investigation itself was a political campaign designed to undermine the agency, reports Al Jazeera.
“I have rejected these allegations from the start and will continue to do so,” he said to Swiss broadcaster RTS. “There is no corruption, fraud or mismanagement of aid.”
In his resignation letter, Krähenbühl said that he was “above the politics that governed the entire process” and resigned “in the firm belief that this is in the best interest of the Palestine refugees, of my family and myself,” as reported by Al Jazeera. He also denied, “the unfounded allegation that I entertained a romantic relationship with a staff member.”
Krähenbühl’s resignation comes three months after a July Al Jazeera report revealed a confidential internal ethics report accusing Krähenbühl and his inner circle of “abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”
According to Middle East Monitor, Israel renewed its calls for the humanitarian agency to be shut down and to end its support for Palestine refugees following Krähenbühl’s resignation. UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide relief and protection for more than 700,000 Palestinians displaced from what is now Israel, during the Arab-Israeli War. Although the relief agency runs schools, provides healthcare, and other social services to more than 5 million refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, it faces increasing criticism from Israel, the White House, and pro-Israel lawmakers, reports Foreign Policy.
Whether these allegations reflect misconduct and power politics in the UNRWA or the US-Israeli agenda to hinder the agency is debatable. Meanwhile, The Jerusalem Post reports that even so, the future of UNRWA is uncertain: the agency’s spokeswoman says that UNRWA still needs $89 million to keep operating until the end of this year.