A crisis that has threatened to undermine the future of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is expected to have a devastating impact—not only on the credibility of the United Nations– but also on the lives of over five million Palestinian refugees whose very survival depends on the humanitarian services provided by the beleaguered UN agency based in Amman and Gaza.
Mouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, says: “This crisis must be resolved on an accelerated schedule in accordance with proper organisational procedures, both for its own sake, and to ensure that Palestinian refugees are not forced to pay the price of what is indisputably a political campaign led by the US and Israel to eliminate Palestinian refugees and their rights from the international agenda.”
At this crisis it is to be looked from both an organizational and political perspective. Viewed from the first perspective UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl stands formally accused of illegitimately concentrating decision-making authority in the hands of a small circle of hand-picked associates, and using these powers to engage in extremely serious abuses of authority.
Significantly these accusations have emanated from within UNRWA, and also from the Ethics Office, which claims to have “credible and corroborated” evidence, presented in a detailed report forwarded to the Office of the UN Secretary General, and has been deemed sufficiently credible to result in a formal investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
While investigations are continuing, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, have suspended their contributions to UNRWA, while back in January 2018, the Trump administration decided, primarily for political reasons, to withhold $65m out of a $125m aid package earmarked for UNRWA triggering a financial crisis.
A former senior UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed alarm that some member states had rushed to suspend their vitally needed contributions to UNRWA, which would punish innocent Palestinians, tens of thousands of whose children would be tipped into further deprivation. “To take such a drastic step on the basis of media coverage of a confidential internal report not available to member states and which they know is still being investigated by OIOS, is far too harsh, especially at a time when even the separation of a single immigrant child from his parents is rightly considered unacceptable,” he declared.
The Ethics Office is a key UN unit designed to check abuses, and its reports are taken seriously. However, it does not have the mandate or the resources to conduct definitive investigations, so it gathers and presents information and evidence to OIOS for determination. Even if OIOS found serious lapses by top managers, should Palestinian refugees be made to suffer?
President Trump terminated the US’s $360m annual contribution, but an intense, ongoing UNRWA campaign had by last month raised over $110m from other countries. “If UNRWA were riddled with serious dysfunction at the top, I cannot imagine that member states would be totally unaware and would have been so exceptionally supportive,” the former senior declared. UNRWA, the UN agency, is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions. The only exception is a very limited subsidy from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used exclusively for administrative costs.
The work of UNRWA could not be carried out without sustained contributions from state and regional governments, the European Union and other government partners, which represented 93.28 per cent of all contributions in 2018. “In 2018, 50 % of UNRWA’s total pledges of $ 1.27 billion came from EU member states, who contributed $643 million. The EU, Germany and Saudi Arabia were the largest individual donors, contributing a cumulative 40%. The United Kingdom and Sweden were also among the top five donors,” according to the UNRWA’s information.
Krahenbuhl should immediately resign. Should he refuse to do so, as seems to be the case, Secretary-General (SG) Guterres should exercise his responsibility and place Krahenbuhl on administrative leave with immediate effect until the matter is resolved. “This is what would one would expect to transpire, and in fact often does, in both the public and private sectors. The removal of several of Krahenbuhl’s subordinates and appointment of an acting Deputy Director for UNRWA is an insufficient response that arguably serves only to deepen the crisis and increase the damage to both UNRWA and the UN,” Mouin Rabbani noted.
It does the UN no favors, he added, that the ethics report and accusations against Krahenbuhl were communicated to the SG’s office in late 2018, and no significant action was undertaken until the report was leaked to the press over the summer. This point is underscored by the decision of several key UNRWA funders (Belgium, The Netherlands, and Switzerland) to suspend contributions to the agency and the prospect of similar measures by other states.
From a political perspective, it is vital to note that this crisis has erupted at a critical time for UNRWA, when UNRWA’s very existence is under attack by the Trump administration. UNRWA’s mandate is up for renewal later this year, raising questions about the timing of these leaks. The political context makes decisive action by the UN all the more urgent. Rabbani noted: “This crisis, and his response, is the ultimate test of his commitment to this mandate”.
It is important to note that these accusations have been levelled against individuals within UNRWA rather than the agency itself; the decision by the US to terminate contributions to UNRWA and campaign to seek the agency’s elimination, and the resultant crisis at the agency, forms the context in which these abuses of authority transpired; the abuses of authority and other misconduct detailed in the report are hardly unique to UNRWA, and similar and arguable more serious abuses have been documented at other UN agencies; the accusations primarily concern expatriate senior officials -Krahenbuhl is Swiss and his former deputy an American - rather than Palestinian staff: the sole Palestinian staff member implicated has already been dismissed, Rabbani concluded.