UNRWA, the UN agency for support to the Palestinian refugees, announced on Wednesday that its Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl, has resigned following allegations of mismanagement. According to UNRWA, the allegations relate to Krähenbühl´s functions as Commissioner and do not include issues of corruption.
Besides Krähenbühl, three other managers have resigned: his senior adviser, deputy Commissioner-General and the chief of staff. The affair is currently investigated by UN´s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). In the meantime, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Christian Saunders as the Officer-In-Charge of UNRWA.
A spokesperson for UNRWA told The Brussels Times that UNRWA is now focused on addressing areas that need strengthening. “In a way, we are using the current situation to reflect and review our way of doing business, improve our efficiency, in order to ensure that the Palestine refugees are served in the best and most dignified way,” she said.
The allegations were first described in a report last year by UNRWA’s own ethics office. After the UN Secretary-General’s office reportedly did not take any action, the report was leaked to a journalist in July 2019.
According to UN Watch, an NGO based in Geneva, Switzerland, whose mandate is to monitor the performance of the United Nations, the allegations against the management include “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation…and other abuses of authority” which led to an “exodus of senior and other staff”.
Krähenbühl has allegedly promoted a close friend to his special adviser and spent most of his working time at her duty station while claiming daily allowances.
Pierre Krähenbühl became the public face of UNRWA when he travelled around the world to mobilise support for the organisation and raise funding for its humanitarian activities and providing assistance to 5.4 million registered Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
Since the US decided in the beginning of 2018 to cut its aid to UNRWA, the UN agency is facing an economic crisis and it work depends almost entirely on voluntary contributions. EU including the Member States is the biggest donor.
Asked by The Brussels Times to comment on the affair, an EU spokesperson replied that it has been informed by UNRWA about the independent investigation carried out by OIOS.
“The enquiry has yet to be completed and its findings are not known. We expect the UN will take appropriate measures to address findings of the OIOS investigation once this is finalised and to be transparent with donors, including with the EU.”
The spokesperson reiterated EU´s “full support to the work of the agency and (we) are working with UNRWA as it faces the challenge of filling the still outstanding financial gap. UNRWA's schools and the vital services in health care and general protection it provides are essential to the stability and security of the region.”
The tone at the top is important for the functioning of every organisation and government. Although the alleged mismanagement was reported in an internal UNRWA report and appear limited in scope, the damage to UNRWA’s reputation is already done and some countries, e.g. Belgium and the Netherlands, have decided to suspend their assistance to the organisation.
When Krähenbühl visited Brussels a year ago, he was interviewed by The Brussels Times about UNRWA’s neutrality and tasks. He admitted that it is a difficult task and requires a huge effort since he and his staff are facing the human consequences of war.
“That said, I don’t agree that we are sharing one of the narratives in the conflict,” he underlined then. “As a humanitarian organisation, established by UN, we are bound by the principle of neutrality. We are criticising both sides if their actions interfere in our work or breach international law.”
UNRWA is the only UN organisation still caring for a specific refugee community but Krähenbühl rejected allegations that UNRWA has been perpetuating the conflict and blocked integration of the Palestinian refugees. “It is the failure to end conflicts that prolongs refugee situations and denies refugees the choice to define a dignified future of their own.”
The Brussels Times