Report claims misconduct by UNRWA officials

Confidential internal report from UN Palestinian refugee agency claims severe abuses of authority among the organisation's senior management team.

Ethics report accuses 'clique' of top UN agency officials of abusing authority

Switzerland suspends UNRWA funding while UN investigation pending

Misconduct allegations come as UNRWA faces increased pressure from Israel, US

LONDON - Switzerland on Tuesday said it was suspending funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees after an ethics report revealed alleged mismanagement and abuse of authority at the agency's highest levels.

The Swiss foreign ministry said that it had already made its annual contribution of 22.3 million Swiss francs ($22.5 million, 20.2 million euros) to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

But Bern said it was "suspending any additional contributions" to UNRWA - already in crisis due to US funding cuts - pending the findings of United Nations investigators who are examining the ethics report.

UNRWA, led by Swiss national Pierre Krahenbuhl, has declined to comment in detail on the internal report while the UN probe is ongoing. But the document describes "credible and corroborated" allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving Krahenbuhl.

Officials of UNRWA face numerous accusations detailed in the confidential internal report from the agency's ethics office, which alleges that members of UNRWA's senior management have engaged in various and repeated forms of misconduct.

The controversial allegations come amid the fallout of a decision by US president Donald Trump to cut contributions to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees to zero in 2019, where the US had previously been its largest donor, forcing UNRWA officials to seek funding from other sources to address the shortfall.

The ethics report alleged a concentration of power with a small "clique" of officials began in 2015 and escalated after the US cut funding from $360 million to just $60 million in 2018.

The report claims that the funding crisis "served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision making power in members of the 'clique'" as well as an "increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures".

It points to officials including the former Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan (who resigned from his post in early July) as well as Commissioner-General Krahenbuhl, Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell (who also resigned from her post in July) and Senior Adviser to the Commissioner-General Maria Mohammedi.

The report describes these officials as members of an "inner circle" at the top of the agency whose misdemeanours included "sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority" that were carried out "for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".

The report concludes these individuals' behaviour is "jeopardizing the credibility and interests of the agency" and constitutes "an enormous risk to the reputation of the UN".

Beyond the professional

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq has said an investigation of the allegations is ongoing, and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres won't comment until it is completed. He said commissioner-General Krahenbuhl "has been doing excellent work, but we are saying that without prejudice to the result of this investigation."

Portions of the report focus on the relationship between Krahenbuhl and his adviser Mohammedi, which the report claims "went beyond the professional", contributing to "a toxic environment" that caused "frequent embarrassment."

The ethics office said Krahenbuhl established the post of senior adviser himself and followed "an extreme fast-track" to give the job to Mohammedi.

The report also made mention of the "continued excessive travel of the commissioner-general". Mohammedi allegedly traveled with Krahenbuhl on the vast majority of his business travels, using his authority to obtain waivers so she could travel business class with him.

The report said some former executive office staff reported that Krahenbuhl was away from UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem for 28-29 days per month, claiming a daily allowance. It said he told a senior staff member in mid-November that he had made 52 trips up until that time in 2018.

The report also pointed to irregularities in Krahenbuhl's funding drive following the Trump budget cuts, which caused considerable friction with other UN agencies whose traditional purview included the management of fundraising efforts.

Former UNRWA chief of staff Hakam Shahwan meanwhile was described by staff members as behaving like a "thug" and acting as the de facto leader of UNRWA while Krahenbuhl pursued his relationship with Mohammedi. 

The report points to various incidents of Shahwan's misconduct, including using his position to "defame" a driver who had made a complaint against UNRWA employees and having him placed on administrative leave.

According to the report, Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell and Shahwan had developed a close working relationship over several years, and this relationship led to two reported attempts in 2018 by Mitchell to irregularly secure a more senior appointment for her spouse.

Mitchell's spouse, Robert Langridge, was in 2018 appointed as a deputy director at UNRWA's Jordan field office. Both Mitchell and Langridge say they reject the accusations.

Shahwan and Mitchell both resigned from their posts in July. Both have said their resignations are not related to the accusations made against them.

Unprecedented pressure

UNRWA was established by the UN in 1949 to provide relief to the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced during the 1948 Middle East war, which led to the creation of Israel. Its mandate is renewed every few years in the UN General Assembly.

The agency, which is mostly funded by donations from UN member states, currently provides education, healthcare, relief and social aid to more than five million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including the descendants of the Palestinians expelled from Palestine during Israel's founding.

UNRWA said in response to questions that it "is probably among the most scrutinised UN agencies in view of the nature of the conflict and complex and politicised environment it is working in."

"Over the past 18 months, UNRWA has faced immense financial and political pressure, but its entire staff body has steered it, serving 5.4 million Palestine refugees through the most unprecedented financial crisis in its near 70 years of history," it said.

The damning allegations in the UN report come at a time when UNRWA faces an unprecedented level of economic and political pressure. The sweeping funding cuts by the Trump administration comes with increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from both US and Israeli officials, who believe the Palestine refugee agency perpetuates a belief among millions of Palestinians that they will return to the lands their families were ethnically cleansed from in modern-day Israel.

Switzerland's move to cut funding may also raise fears for the agency's future, as Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in May called UNRWA "part of the problem" in the Middle East, as it fuelled "unrealistic" hope among Palestinians of return after 70 years of exile.

The "right of return" for Palestinian refugees is seen as a pillar of the Palestinian national struggle, but Israeli officials are on record saying a mass influx of Palestinian Arabs would spell an end to the "Jewish State". They say they would prefer that Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees absorb them in the event of a peace deal between Palestine and Israel.

The UN officials mentioned in the report are reluctant to comment due to UN rules that prohibit commentary by staff members on pending investigations. Nevertheless, Krahenbuhl has said that while he rejects the accusations detailed in the leaked report, he would not hesitate to take "corrective measures" if they are required.

The cumulative effects of these developments, the leaked report claimed, have been an exodus of UNRWA staff and "an organizational culture characterized by low morale, fear of retaliation — including through non-renewal of contracts — distrust, bullying, intimidation, and marginalization."

The report concluded that "there is overwhelming prima facie evidence" the interconnected behavior of the accused inner circle members amounts to "abuse of authority."

The report was sent to the United Nations secretary general in December and UN investigators have since visited UNRWA's offices in Jerusalem and Amman, collecting information related to the allegations, sources familiar with the matter said.