Head of UN Palestinian refugee agency resigns amid misconduct inquiry

The head of the United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees resigned on Wednesday, the UN said, amid an investigation into misconduct allegations.

U.S. cut funding to organization last year over allegations of anti-Israel incitement

Pierre Krahenbuhl, pictured in January, resigned as the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees on Wednesday. (Denis Balibouse, File/Reuters)

The head of the United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees resigned on Wednesday, the UN said, amid an investigation into misconduct allegations.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) had announced earlier on Wednesday that Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl had been replaced by Christian Saunders as "officer-in-charge" for now until a review of "management-related matters" at the agency was completed.

Wednesday's statement said an ongoing review by the UN internal oversight office turned up "a number of areas that required strengthening" at UNRWA, which provides support to 5.5 million registered refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

A confidential report by the UN ethics office obtained by The Associated Press in July claimed UNRWA managers including Krahenbuhl had "engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority."

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York that Krahenbuhl then informed Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he was resigning, effective immediately.

U.S. cuts funding in 2018

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump decided last August to cut that year's funding for the organization from $360 million US to $60 million. Then-U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called UNRWA's business model and fiscal practices an "irredeemably flawed operation."

This year, the agency received nothing from the Trump administration. Both the U.S. and Israel have accused UNRWA of mismanagement and anti-Israeli incitement.

Following the U.S. decision, Canada contributed $50 million to UNRWA to be allocated over two years to assist health and education efforts. Canada's foreign ministry said the new funds will help bring stability to the region by helping Palestinians cope with poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.

Earlier this year, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer accused the Liberal government of abandoning "Canada's principled support" for Israel by sending funds to UNRWA and by abstaining on a UN vote that condemned the U.S. for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Canada had stopped contributing entirely in 2013 under the Harper government, but resumed in 2015 once Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office for an average of $23 million a year

On Wednesday, Israel's foreign ministry said Krahenbuhl's replacement "is but the first step in a long process that is needed to eliminate corruption, increase transparency, and prevent politicization of the agency."

Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement: "There is no other solution to UNRWA except to close it."

'Toxic environment' at agency

Citing information from some 25 current and past UNRWA directors and staff, the ethics report said an "inner circle" comprising Krahenbuhl, his deputy Sandra Mitchell, chief of staff Hakam Shahwan and senior adviser Maria Mohammedi had bypassed normal decision-making processes and sidelined field and program directors and other senior staff.

The report alleges that Krahenbuhl, a Swiss national who was appointed to lead UNRWA on March 30, 2014, started a relationship with Mohammedi late that year that "went beyond the professional," created "a toxic environment," and caused "frequent embarrassment."

The ethics office said Krahenbuhl established the post of senior adviser and followed "an extreme fast-track" to give the job to Mohammedi. She traveled with him on the vast majority of his business travels, using waivers so she could travel business class with him, the report alleged.

The report said some former executive office staff reported that Krahenbuhl was away from UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem for 28-29 days per month, claiming a daily allowance. It said he told a senior staff member in mid-November 2018 that he had made 52 trips during that year up until that time.

A Palestinian carries food supplies at an aid distribution center run by UNRWA at a refugee camp in Gaza City. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

UNRWA has faced budgetary difficulties since last year, notably after the U.S. decision to cut its aid. Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium have separately suspended payments to UNRWA over the management issues that are now under investigation. The agency's spokesperson said it still needs $89 million US to keep operating until the end of this year.

"It is critical for the international community to support the crucial work performed by the agency in the areas of health, education, and humanitarian assistance, which is a source of stability in a volatile region," Dujarric said.

The resignation drew concern from Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas, which said it could play into upcoming discussions by the UN General Assembly over the renewal of UNRWA's mandate, which is up for vote every three years. UNRWA's current mandate expires next June.

More than half of the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, whose borders are tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt, receive food aid from UNRWA.

Hamas official Bassim Naeem said the shakeup increased fears "the agency and its mandate was being targeted under American and Israeli pressure."

With files from Melissa Kent, Reuters and The Canadian Press