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Top UNRWA officials under investigation for corruption, sexual misconduct

#DignityIsPriceless” UNRWA campaign sticker.
#DignityIsPriceless” UNRWA campaign sticker [Ferdous Al-Audhali/Middle East Monitor]

Senior officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) will be investigated after a leaked internal report accused them of ethical abuses including corruption, nepotism, sexual misconduct and abuse of authority.

The confidential report – which was yesterday leaked to the Associated Press – was conducted by UNRWA’s internal ethics office and implicated the agency’s upper echelons of management, including UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl. 

Al Jazeera also obtained a copy of the report from a source close to UNRWA, who said that agency employees were concerned about a seeming lack of action after it was sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ office in December.

The report alleged that senior officials “have 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, jeopardizing the credibility and interests of the agency.”

The report cites information from 25 current and past UNRWA directors and staff, claiming that an “inner circle” comprising Krahenbuhl, his deputy Sandra Mitchell, Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan and senior adviser Maria Mohammedi have “bypassed normal decision-making processes and side-lined field and program directors and other senior staff”.

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The document also alleged that Krahenbuhl started a relationship with Mohammedi in late 2014, less than a year after he was appointed to lead the agency. This relationship reportedly “went beyond the professional,” created “a toxic environment” and caused “frequent embarrassment” for staff members.

Further, it appears that Krahenbuhl created the position of senior adviser specifically for Mohammedi, fast-tracking her appointment and enabling her to travel with him extensively on business.

All four senior officials named in the report have denied the accusations against them, but Krahenbuhl has agreed to cooperate with a probe into the report’s findings by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).

Guterres’ spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a statement that “until this investigation is completed, the Secretary-General is not in a position to make any further comments on this matter […] As he has shown in the past, the Secretary-General is committed to acting swiftly upon receiving the full report.”

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If the allegations in the report are found to be true, the fallout for the agency could prove disastrous.

UNRWA has come under increasing pressure in the past few years, particularly since US President Donald Trump announced that he would cease all funding for the agency. Contributing over 25 per cent of UNRWA’s budget, the move has caused severe funding shortages that have threatened the closure of schools, health centres and other infrastructure for Palestinian refugees.

The organisation has also been attacked by Israel, with former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat last year stopping all UNRWA operations in Jerusalem. Barkat labelled UNRWA a “foreign and unnecessary organisation that has failed miserably,” adding that he intended to “expel it” from the Holy City. Barkat also vowed to close UNRWA schools, leaving 1,800 children in the city without access to education.

Critics of UNRWA have been quick to jump on the allegations detailed in the report, including US Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, and former US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley.

Taking to Twitter, Greenblatt wrote: “We’re extremely concerned about UNRWA allegations. We urge a full & transparent investigation by the UN. UNRWA’s model is broken/unsustainable & based on an endless expanding [number] of beneficiaries. Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better.”

Meanwhile Haley tweeted that “this is exactly why we stopped [UNRWA’s] funding”.

Haley did not elaborate on whether she or the Trump administration were aware of the conduct alleged in the report prior to its publication.

READ: Greenblatt under fire after criticising PA for not paying Palestinian’s medical costs

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