UN refugee agency at mercy of detractors after head resigns

Krahenbuhl’s departure from Unrwa over accusations of mismanagement comes at precarious time

Pierre Krahenbuhl, who resigned as commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on Wednesday. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Pierre Krahenbuhl, who resigned as commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on Wednesday. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

 

Accusations of mismanagement have precipitated the resignation of the head of the UN agency caring for 5.5 million Palestinian refugees, undermining its ability to function and threatening its very existence.

The departure of UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl has left it in a precarious situation and at the mercy of detractors in Israel, the US and elsewhere. They have argued for decades that Unrwa is dysfunctional and should close.

Unrwa provides shelter, basic food and health, educational and welfare services to survivors and descendants of 750,000 Palestinians driven from their homes during Israel’s 1948 war of establishment.

Without Unrwa, which began operations in 1950, stateless and impoverished Palestinians would have been a heavy burden on East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as well as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

While the international community has supported Unrwa for nearly 70 years, funding has always been a struggle. Unrwa’s greatest challenge came last year when the Trump administration – which is closely allied with the right-wing Israeli government – cut $300 million from the annual US donation of $365 million and cancelled all subsequent funding, which was formerly one-quarter of the agency’s $1.2 billion budget.

This move coincided with economic, political, and social crises in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and host countries for refugees.

The US administration’s objective was to exert pressure on Unrwa to “de-register” offspring of the original refugees, thereby ending the “refugee problem” and the need for Unrwa.

The US argued that donors could provide billions of dollars to settle Palestinian exiles permanently in host countries where they would be naturalised. External investment in the West Bank and Gaza would provide an “economic solution” to dependence on Unrwa.

Self-determination

Palestinians have accused the US administration of trying to eliminate them as a nation. They and host governments have rejected the US plan and insist Palestinians must be granted self-determination. Until this is achieved, Palestinians and host governments contend that Unrwa is essential.

Unrwa’s internal investigation accuses Krahenbuhl and his “inner circle” of “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives”.

This group included Krahenbuhl’s deputy, Sandra Mitchell, chief of staff Hakam Shahwan, both of whom left in July, and adviser Maria Mohammedi, with whom Krahenbuhl is alleged to have had an affair.

The report concludes that the alleged misconduct of these individuals presents “an enormous risk to the reputation of the UN” and argued “their immediate removal should be carefully considered”.

In an interview with Swiss broadcaster RTS on Wednesday evening, Krahenbuhl said he “rejected these allegations from the start and will continue to do so”. He added: “There is no corruption, fraud or misappropriation of aid.”

The concentration of authority in the “inner circle” is reported to have been triggered by the US withdrawal of funding. In response, the agency cut back services and Krahenbuhl travelled the globe to successfully secure donations to make up most of the loss for this year as well as last.

Since Unrwa still faces a funding gap of $120 million for 2019, several countries that have suspended funding may deliver on pledges once a new team is in place. Former Unrwa official Christian Saunders has been appointed its interim head.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.