US officials are capitalizing off of a scandal surrounding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) after an ethics report accusing UNRWA leadership of abuse of power and creating a toxic work environment was leaked to the media.
The 10-page internal report includes testimony from dozens of current and former employees alleging abuse of power from the organization’s senior management team.
The alleged “inner circle” — consisting of Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell, Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan, and Senior Adviser to the Commissioner-General Maria Mohammedi — is accused of engaging in “abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”
Following the leak, which made international headlines, US officials took the opportunity to criticize UNRWA, which it has long targeted for what the Trump administration alleges is the organizations “anti-Israel agenda.”
“We’re extremely concerned about UNRWA allegations,” Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt tweeted, calling for a “full & transparent investigation by the UN.”
“UNRWA’s model is broken/unsustainable & based on an endless expanding # of beneficiaries. Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better,” Greenblatt said, regurgitating the Trump administration’s narrative of a “broken” organization that it used to justify defunding UNRWA last year.
Trump’s former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley also took to Twitter to weigh in on the issue, linking to Al Jazeera’s report on the scandal, saying “this is exactly why we stopped their funding.”
This is Exactly why we stopped their funding:
Reports top officials of UNRWA engaged in "abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".https://t.co/yBPc96AWvY
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) July 29, 2019
According to the UN, an investigation into the matter has been underway since December, when the report was first sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Despite reassurances from UN officials that the matter is being taken seriously, countries are already halting their funding to the refugee agency, which provudes crucial services like healthcare and education to some 5 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.
Both Switzerland and the Netherlands have announced a suspension in their funds in the days since the report was leaked to the press, citing a need for “clarification” on the matter.
The majority of the report, seen by AFP and Al Jazeera, focuses on the concentration of power within the top “inner circle” of the agency, specifically the actions of Commissioner General Krahenbuhl and his senior advisor Maria Mohammedi.
According to Al Jazeera, the report claims that in late 2014, after Krahenbul “expressed a particular interest” in Mohammedi, who was previously a Senior External Relations Projects Officer, he appointed her to the position of senior advisor and began taking her on most of his business trips, “using his authority to obtain waivers enabling her to travel business class with him.”
The report alleges that for 28-29 days a month, Krahenbul was on “duty travel” away from his post in Jerusalem, all the while claiming daily subsistence allowance.
Citing current and former staff in UNRWA’s Executive Office and the External Relations and Communications Department (ERCD), who were concerned about the perceived inaction of UN officials on the issue, the report says that employees recognized that Krahenbul and Mohammedi’s relationship went “beyond the professional,” contributing to a “toxic work environment.”
Highlighting the actions of senior management, the report claims the officials engaged in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives,” the AFP reported.
The consolidation of power and other abuses of authority were further exacerbated by UNRWA’s financial crisis in 2018, when the US pulled its funding for the organization.
The crisis “served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision making power in members of the ‘clique’ and in particular, the [former] chief of staff; increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm; and continued excessive travel of the commissioner-general,” Al Jazeera quoted the report as saying.
The report also alleged that senior management used their authority to recruit higher positions for their spouses, while others were accused of “thug”-like behavior and intimidation tactics against employees who filed complaints against them.
A former UNRWA staff member who worked in the ERCD department in Jerusalem spoke to Mondoweiss on the condition of anonymity, and confirmed several of the allegations made in the report.
“It is true that management became dominated by a number of personalities, and that the financial crisis resulted in an intensification of this trend,” he told Mondoweiss. “In that sense, the report is broadly true.”
Despite the evidence against Krahenbul and his inner circle, he has largely denied the allegations, telling Al Jazeera “recent external and UN reports showed ‘positive assessments’ of UNRWA’s management.”
“Any suggestion, therefore, that we are not taking our responsibilities seriously is unfounded and highly misleading. We should be judged on the findings of the independent investigation not on allegations, rumours or fabrications,” he said.
‘Refugees will be the ones to lose’
The ethics report comes at a time of already intensified scrutiny of the organization on the part of America and Israel and a worsening financial crisis.
While the Swiss government has already made its annual contribution of 22.3 million Swiss francs ($22.5m) to UNRWA, it said it would halt any additional contributions pending further investigations.
The Dutch minister of development decided to put the Netherlands’ annual contribution of $14.5m to UNRWA on hold, saying he “would like to hear what steps the UN plans to take based on the outcome of the investigation,” Al Jazeera reported.
The Netherlands was also reportedly “in consultation” with other donors to UNRWA about the matter.
With services and jobs provided by the organization already in decline due to lack of finances, some have expressed concern that the main “losers” of the scenario, are unfortunately the refugees that the agency serves.
“At the end of the day, it isn’t going to be some UN bureaucratic elite that loses out here; it will be the refugees themselves,” the former UNRWA staff member told Mondoweiss.
He added that he had reason to believe the leak came “directly from the US or the Israeli governments” in order to serve their political interests in the region, specifically regarding UNRWA’s mandate, which is up for renewal in 2020, and which the US has already called to end.
Update: August 2nd 11:30am
Ian Williams, the author of the Al Jazeera report and recipient of the leak reached out to Mondoweiss to deny allegations made by Mondoweiss’ anonymous source of potential US and Israeli involvement in the leak. Mondoweiss notes that this was an opinion expressed by our source, not a statement of fact by Mondoweiss. The US and Israel, Williams said, “were in no way involved in leaking the report.” He reiterated his claims, which Mondoweiss referenced in our initial report, that the leak was made by UNRWA employees who were concerned over the perceived inaction of UN officials on the issue.