Washington Report on Middle East Affairs / August-September 2019
Early in June, a file landed on my desk. It was a devastating exposé of the top management of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the agency that, since 1948, has toiled with the endless task of ameliorating the aftermath of the Nakba. The Washington Report’s deadline was a long ways off, so I took it to Al-Jazeera. Posing questions raised by the file proved akin to overturning a stone and seeing the denizens from underneath run for cover.
The confidential report, compiled by the ethics office of the agency, cited “credible and corroborated reports” that members of the “inner circle” at the top of UNRWA have engaged in “abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.” They “have engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation … and other abuses of authority.” In the face of questioning from myself and Al-Jazeera to whom I took the story, no less than three people named in the report resigned before the end of July.
The file identified the inner circle as the Swiss national Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general since 2014; Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell; Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan; and Senior Adviser to the Commissioner-General Maria Mohammedi. It described the alleged conduct as “an enormous risk to the reputation of the U.N.” and recommended that “their immediate removal should be carefully considered.”
Since 2015, the report alleges, the named individuals have steadily consolidated power, leading to “management decline at UNRWA.” The situation deteriorated markedly from the start of 2018 when the United States cut funding and Krahenbuhl launched the “Dignity is Priceless” global fundraising campaign, which aimed to raise $500 million. It was established outside UNRWA’s Department of External Relations and Communications (ERCD) that usually conducts fundraising efforts, “contributing to the departure of several senior ERCD staff,” the report claims.
The report alleges that the “Dignity” campaign fell far short of its target, and “reportedly raised only modest amounts, with the vast majority of the agency’s new funding raised through ERCD—with the commissioner-general’s and a number of key member states’ active support.”
Among the many allegations, the core of the report was that the commissioner-general had overly close ties with his senior adviser, Maria Mohammedi, appointed February 2015. The position is funded by the Swiss government, but the cash-strapped refugee agency was alleged to have paid for extensive business class travel for her, despite U.N. rules restricting such privileges. The report says that after the appointment, it quickly became clear to staff in UNRWA’s executive office and the ERCD that their relationship went “beyond the professional.”
The relationship created a “toxic environment” for colleagues in the executive office and caused “frequent embarrassment for ERCD colleagues and others when dealing with member states,” including donor representatives and donors. The report also alleges that, following her appointment, Krahenbuhl took Mohammedi with him on “the vast majority of his business travels, using his authority to obtain waivers enabling her to travel business class with him.”
Krahenbuhl’s travel habits have been very similar to that of Erik Solheim, the UNEP executive director, who was recently forced to resign over similar excessive travel claims. Some senior UNRWA staff reported that “the commissioner-general was structurally away from his duty station of Jerusalem on duty travel—including protracted stays at the agency’s Amman headquarters,” which was his special adviser’s official duty station—while claiming daily allowances for 28-29 days per month. In November 2018, Krahenbuhl informed “one senior staff member that, from the beginning of year he had made 52 trips.” An exasperated former director called him a submarine: “Every now and then the commissioner-general surfaces for a couple of days to engage in public advocacy and/or attend meetings, after which he disappears into the unknown for protracted periods, during most of which he is incommunicado.”
The inner circle, as accomplices to such bending of the rules, used the leverage it gave them to interfere in appointments and harass those who stood in their way. The report concludes that, since 2015, they have steadily consolidated power, leading to “management decline,” but that situation deteriorated with the sharp reduction in funding.
In 2018, the U.S.’s decision to slash its contributions from $360 million to $60 million for 2018, and then cut its donations to zero for 2019, caused a funding crisis in UNRWA. The report claims that the crisis “served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the ‘clique’ and in particular, the chief of staff; increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm; and continued excessive travel of the commissioner-general.”
It alleges that these developments led to an “exodus of senior and other staff” and a work culture “characterized by low morale, fear of retaliation … distrust, secrecy, bullying, intimidation, and marginalization … and management that is highly dysfunctional, with a significant breakdown of the regular accountability structure.”
Quoting dozens of senior staff both recent and current who substantiated its contents, the report went to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in December. And nothing happened. That is why UNRWA staff brought the report to me, in the hope that a reporter’s questioning would provoke some action. Its leakers considered that a speedy announcement of a firm response would lance the boil and deprive UNRWA’s many enemies of a weapon. They worried that as long as the report existed within the notoriously leaky U.N. headquarters, there was a strong risk that it would be “weaponized” against the agency by Israel or the United States.
Initially, S.G. Guterres’s office disclaimed any knowledge of the report, but then it transpired that it had, in fact, been passed on to the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is investigating the allegations and also looking into previous charges.
For years, the United States supported UNRWA, partly out of conscience, perhaps at their complicity in the partition and expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, but also as a sound geopolitical expedient—there were enough problems with disgruntled Palestinians as it was, without scattering them homeless, uneducated and unfed across the Middle East. The agency was intended to be an ad-hoc response to a one-off contingency—yet it is still here 70 years later.
Since neither the victims nor the accomplices of the Nakba were prepared to admit that this was a permanent situation, the management of the agency has always been cobbled together on the hoof. It has no management board and its commissioner-general is only beholden to the U.N. secretary-general. It is funded by donations, not the regular dues of the member states, which has made longer term planning difficult.
And of course, recently, Likud’s pathological distaste for the Palestinians, now reflected by the Trump administration and many in Congress, has meant a relentless underfunding of its operations leading to the current cessation of all U.S. funding.
Even though the report had gone to the secretary-general, concerned UNRWA staff feared it would be sat on since, as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch points out, “Guterres continues to walk on eggshells around the U.S. and other major powers,” being reluctant to publicly denounce China’s mass detention of Uighurs and to order investigations in sensitive areas. In the Middle East, that most sensitive area of all, he has been circumspect about Israeli actions in defiance of international law, in contrast to his quietly spoken but firm predecessor Ban Ki-moon. With the general predilection of U.N. officials to inaction as well, the concerned staff members felt that the secretary-general’s office would be reluctant to move unless prodded.
When we approached Stephane Dujarric, the secretary-general’s spokesman, he admitted, “An investigation of the allegations contained in the report you mention is ongoing. Until this investigation is completed, the secretary-general is not in a position to make any further comments on this matter,” adding, “As he has shown in the past, the secretary-general is committed to acting swiftly upon receiving the full report.”
In a reply to Al-Jazeera, Krahenbuhl “unreservedly” rejected the characterization of UNRWA and its senior leadership set out in the extracts. He said, “UNRWA is aware that a report was submitted to the United Nations Headquarters, which is said to contain allegations against members of UNRWA’s staff.”
He added, “at the end of March 2019, I was notified that allegations against UNRWA would be investigated by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). I have at all stages of this process instructed and afforded full cooperation with this investigation.”
Mohammedi told Al-Jazeera she had “never seen” the ethics report and rejected the accusations about her conduct as “false” and “ill-intentioned.”
Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan was described by many staff members as behaving like a “thug” who was increasingly seen as the de facto leader of UNRWA, the report alleges. It also suggested that he complicated UNRWA’s work in Gaza by being overly partial to the PA rather than what the agency describes as the de facto authorities.
The report charges that Shahwan undercut the work of field directors and had also “effectively taken over UNRWA operations in Jerusalem,” circumventing field office chains of command and “bypassing established procurement and financial processes and decision making.” It also alleged he was actually running the agency in the vacuum created by Krahenbuhl’s frequent absences. Shahwan was also accused of favouring the Palestine Authority/Fatah figures over what the agency calls the “de facto” Hamas administration in Gaza, complicating its work there.
In early July, Shahwan “was separated” from UNRWA after I contacted UNRWA about the report and within an hour received a pseudonymous email attempting to discredit the alleged author of the ethics report. Tamara al-Rifai, UNRWA’s newly appointed spokesperson, told me, “UNRWA confirms that after receiving a copy of an anonymous email sent to you addressing the alleged author of the report and related matters, the agency undertook an immediate review and subsequently, one of its senior staff members was separated as a direct response to that breach.” In a statement to Al-Jazeera, the spokesperson confirmed that the senior staff member was Shahwan.
When contacted, Shahwan made no comment on specific allegations about his conduct but said his “resignation has no link whatsoever to any of the allegations in the report.” He boasted on his website that he was on paid leave until the end of his contract, which our informants told us runs until August 2020. When asked whether the cash-strapped agency was indeed paying his salary for a year, during which he would be contractually forbidden to talk about events in the agency, UNRWA claimed that we were wrong, but notably failed to correct any of the details about how long he was to be paid, citing staff confidentiality—which ironically Shahwan was fired for breaching over the Ethics Office Report.
A former UNRWA director, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Al-Jazeera that according to the report, Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell and former Chief of Staff Shahwan had previously worked closely over a number of years. The ethics report alleges two reported attempts in 2018 by Mitchell, through Shahwan and other staff, to secure a more senior appointment for her spouse, Robert Langridge. Mitchell’s spouse was appointed as a deputy director at UNRWA’s Jordan field office, effective October 2018.
The report alleges that Langridge “was appointed through an irregular recruitment process and in violation of the U.N. and agency prohibition of conflicted spousal appointment.”
In a statement to Al-Jazeera, Langridge said he categorically rejected the allegations. “I particularly resent and reject the notion that I was not qualified for the position. This is neither factual nor correct,” he said. However, the report’s allegations about Langridge were backed by several former colleagues, who wish to stay anonymous until the report is published.
Mitchell, a U.S. national, told Al-Jazeera she “emphatically” rejected all the allegations. “There is a pending investigation and as a U.N. staff member, I am restricted from commenting on specific allegations nor do I wish to interfere in that process as this would violate rules and obligations that I am bound by as a U.N. staff member,” she stated. She resigned with immediate effect when facing questioning by U.N. investigators from the OIOS.
Al-Jazeera’s sources said that the author of and witnesses to the ethics report were trying to shield the agency and the U.N. in the hope that it would be acted upon, and only contacted the press when they suspected it would be sat upon.
As the report says, there is “overwhelming” evidence that the various interconnected behaviours of the CG, DCG, CoS and SACG amount to abuse of authority … The egregious use of the individuals’ positions of power is of such severity, presenting an enormous risk to UNRWA and to the reputation of the U.N., that their immediate removal should be carefully considered,” the report concludes. Since we started the questioning, three of them have gone.
Concerned staff are hoping the U.N. Secretary-General Guterres and member countries will take the opportunity to reform the organization’s structure and management to shield it from the inevitable Likud/GOP assault. But the commissioner-general who assembled and directed the rapidly shrinking team is still there along with his special adviser.
U.N. correspondent Ian Williams is the author of UNtold: the Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War (2017)