Belgium joins group of European countries in suspending funds to UNRWA pending ethics investigation

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Another European country has announced a halt in funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), bringing the total to three states to take such measures in the wake of an ethics scandal facing the organization.

Following the actions of both Switzerland and the Netherlands, Belgium announced on Thursday that it was temporarily suspending its financial contributions to the agency over an internal ethics report leaked to the press last week.

Citing alleged ethical misconduct within the UNRWA administration, specifically the “inner circle” of the agency’s Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, the report has thrown the embattled agency into further financial crisis, with the US and Israel jumping on the opportunity to reiterate their criticism of the agency. 

The internal report was leaked to Al Jazeera over the concerns of former and current UNRWA employees that the matter, which was revealed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres back in December, was not being taken seriously.

Despite reassurances from UN officials that an independent investigation is ongoing and being taken seriously, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium all cited the pending investigation and need for “clarification” as a reason for the suspension of funds.

“Awaiting the independent investigation, we are going to stop our further payments,” Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo told Belgian news magazine Knack.

“We will respond critically to the report. If the claims are correct, that is totally unacceptable. It is not because you stand up for a good cause that you can do whatever you want,” De Croo said.

The Israeli embassy in Belgium tweeted in response to the news, linking to the Knack article and the aforementioned quote by De Croo.

According to Knack, Belgium will be withholding its planned additional contribution of 5.35 million Euros ($5.98m), not its fixed annual contribution of 6.25 million Euros ($6.99m) which have already been transferred to UNRWA.

While the Swiss government has already made its annual contribution of 22.3 million Swiss francs ($22.5m) to UNRWA, it also said it would halt any additional contributions to the organization, while the Netherlands said it would be holding its annual contribution of $14.5m.

In a statement to Al Jazeera last week, UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai said she “regrets” the decisions to halt funding, pleading that the public “wait for the actual conclusions of the investigation” and that donor countries “keep their funding in place.”

A former UNRWA staff member who worked in the Executive Office and the External Relations and Communications Department (ERCD) in Jerusalem — the same department where the leak allegedly originated from — told Mondoweiss that he found the report to be accurate, saying it was “broadly true.”

The former staff member, who spoke to Mondoweiss under the condition of anonymity, expressed concern over the fact that “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.”

UNRWA provides crucial services, ranging from healthcare and education to work programs and food assistance to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees across the occupeid Palestinian territory and the Middle East.

With services and jobs provided by the organization already in decline for years due to lack of finances, UNRWA took its biggest hit in 2018 when the US, its biggest donor, pulled all of its funding, citing the Trump administration’s “concerns” over the agency’s model.

Belgian activist Ludo De Brabander of the self-described anti-Capitalist peace organization Vrede vza published an Op-Ed in Knack following his country’s halt in funding, accusing Belgium of  “playing into the shameful Israeli occupation practices” and the US’ pro-Israeli agenda.

De Brabander called the actions of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland “absolutely unreasonable” and “politically unacceptable.”

“Not only do they give a false signal… they also punish the victims, the Palestinian refugees, who have a hard time making ends meet,” the activist said.