Middle East

Ex-UNRWA chief says agency 'victim of campaign to undermine it'

Pierre Krahenbuhl denies wrongdoing maintaining ‘there is no corruption, fraud or mismanagement of aid’.

    The former head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, who resigned amid an ongoing investigation into alleged abuses of authority, has denied wrongdoing saying his agency was the victim of a political campaign designed to undermine it.

    “I have rejected these allegations from the start and will continue to do so,” former commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl told Swiss broadcaster RTS. “There is no corruption, fraud or mismanagement of aid.”

    A confidential internal agency ethics report, first reported by Al Jazeera in July, accused Krahenbuhl and his “inner circle” of abuses of authority.

    The report alleged the inner circle was made up of Deputy Commission-General Sandra Mitchell – who resigned from her post in late July – Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan – who left the agency in early July – and the senior adviser to the commissioner-general, Maria Mohammedi.

    It claimed members of the group “engaged in misconduct, nepotism, retaliation … and other abuses of authority” following the fallout from the United States’s decision to cut its contributions to the agency from $360m to $60m for 2018 and then zero in 2019.

    The US and Israel both accused UNRWA of mismanagement and anti-Israel incitement.

    ‘Above the politics’

    In his resignation letter, Krahenbuhl complained the inquiry “has been fraught with leaks … despite your personal commitment to confidentiality”.

    He denied what he called “the unfounded allegation that I entertained a romantic relationship with a staff member”.

    Krahenbuhl said he was “above the politics that have governed this entire process” and was resigning “in the firm belief that this is in the best interest of Palestine refugees, of my family and myself”.

    He added: “A further delay would only benefit those who have so actively engaged in political, financial and personal attacks over the past two years with the declared objective to undermine UNRWA and the integrity of Palestine refugees.”

    UNRWA assists more than five million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and occupied East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

    Krahenbuhl wrote that Washington’s withholding of funding caused “an existential financial crisis” at UNRWA.

    He was notified in March that an investigation was under way by the UN secretariat “based on allegations received against UNRWA personnel relating to unsatisfactory conduct”, an UNRWA spokeswoman said.

    Krahenbuhl, who took over the UNRWA post in 2014, was previously director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

    His tenure at cash-strapped UNRWA saw frequent clashes with US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has suggested refugee host countries should take over UNRWA’s services across the Middle East.

    Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium have separately suspended payments to UNRWA over the management issues that are now under investigation.

    The agency’s spokeswoman said it still needs $89m to keep operating until the end of this year.


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