Report: UNRWA Leaders Accused of Sexual Misconduct and Abuse of Powers

The ethics office for Palestinian refugees alleges that acts were carried out for 'personal gain'

A Palestinian man rides his horse past the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City, January 8, 2018.
Mohammed Abed/AFP

A confidential report by the ethics office of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees claims its top management including Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl "have engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority."

The report, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, alleges these acts were carried out "for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives, jeopardizing the credibility and interests of the agency."

The ethics office said the concerns in the 10-page document, first reported by Al Jazeera, represent "an extremely grave and significant reputational, operational and security risk to the agency."

The allegations come at a time when the UN Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, has narrowly survived the unprecedented loss of all funding from the United States, its largest donor, and is currently enjoying "an equally unprecedented wave of support from existing and new donors, as well as global goodwill," the ethics report said.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said an investigation of the allegations is ongoing and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres won't comment until it is completed. He said Krahenbuhl "has been doing excellent work, but we are saying that without prejudice to the result of this investigation."

Citing information from some 25 current and past UNRWA directors and staff, the report said 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 sidelined field and program directors and other senior staff.

According to the ethics report, Krahenbuhl, 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." When directors who have since left raised it with Krahenbuhl, the report said "they felt increasingly isolated or marginalized" and one believed it was key to his contract not being renewed.

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 that he had made 52 trips up until that time in 2018.

UNRWA's spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Mohammedi was quoted by Al Jazeera as rejecting accusations about her conduct as "false" and "ill-intentioned." Al Jazeera said Mitchell rejected all allegations, including that she abused her power to secure an appointment for her spouse, and resigned in late July. It said Shahwan left in early July.

Al Jazeera said Krahenbuhl "unreservedly" rejected the characterization of UNRWA and its senior leadership and said he was cooperating with the investigation and would implement any "corrective measures or other management actions" it may recommend.

The ethics report alleged the concentration of power began in 2015 and escalated after the U.S. cut funding for UNRWA from $360 million to just $60 million in 2018. This year, the agency received nothing from the Trump administration.

Krahenbuhl has said 42 countries and institutions increased their contributions last year so the agency could finance its $1.2 million budget — and UNRWA has kept the same $1.2 billion budget this year. He called donor pledges of $113 million in late June an encouraging step, but short of alleviating a "precarious" funding situation to help 5 million Palestinian refugees this year.

The report claims the funding crisis "has served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the 'clique.'"

The cumulative effects of these developments, it claimed, have been an exodus of staff and "an organizational culture characterized by low morale, fear of retaliation — including through non-renewal of contracts — distrust, bullying, intimidation, and marginalization."

The report concluded that "there is overwhelming prima facie evidence" the interconnected behavior of the four inner circle members amounts to "abuse of authority."