UNRWA Chief Resigns Amid Misconduct Allegations

Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl replaced by deputy Christian Saunders ■ Nature of the allegations as yet unconfirmed

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File photo: Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA Commissioner-General of the United Nations, attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland January 29, 2019.
File photo: Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA Commissioner-General of the United Nations, attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland January 29, 2019.Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

The head of UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, has resigned, effective immediately, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Wednesday.

Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl informed Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he was resigning, just hours after he stepped down until "management-related matters" at the agency was completed.

"At this time, it is vital that member states and other partners remain committed to UNRWA and the services it provides," Dujarric said.

UNRWA provides education, health, housing and relief services to more than 5 million registered refugees in the West BankGaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as in neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

A Palestinian man rides his horse past an UNRWA office in Gaza City, January 8, 2018Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

Guterres had earlier on Wednesday appointed Christian Saunders, the agency's acting deputy commissioner general, as officer-in-charge for the interim period.

Krahenbuhl was notified in March that an investigation was underway by the U.N. Secretariat in New York "based on allegations received against UNRWA personnel relating to unsatisfactory conduct", an UNRWA spokeswoman said.

Dujarric said in a statement on Wednesday that the preliminary findings of the investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services "exclude fraud or misappropriation of operational funds" by Krahenbuhl.

"There are, however, managerial issues that need to be addressed," he said.

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".

The Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement saying: “Israel views with great concern the recently published findings of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigation into UNRWA, and calls for the full and transparent release of all findings of the investigation. These findings strengthen Israel's claims that deep and comprehensive change in the operational model of the agency is required."

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz added that UNRWA's conduct demonstrates that “the agency is part of the problem and not part of the solution. The agency perpetuates the refugee issue in a political manner, and in doing so distances any possibility for a future resolution."

Benjamin Netanyahu (C) shakes hands with Israel Katz (R), October 3, 2019Credit: AFP

The international community, Katz said, "needs to find a new model that will provide humanitarian assistance to those who truly need it, and must remove from the agenda the futile idea of the return of the refugees."

UNRWA has faced budgetary difficulties since last year, when the United States, its biggest donor, halted its aid of $360 million per year. Washington says some UNRWA activities are anti-Israeli.

Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium have separately suspended payments to UNRWA over the management issues that are now under investigation. The agency's spokeswoman says it still needs $89 million 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