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Head of UN Palestinian refugee agency steps aside amid ethics probe

UNRWA says inquiry has ‘revealed management issues which relate specifically’ to Pierre Krahenbuhl; deputy to take over on interim basis

Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), attends a ceremony to mark the start of the school year at a UNRWA school in Palestinian refugee camp Al-Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, September 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), attends a ceremony to mark the start of the school year at a UNRWA school in Palestinian refugee camp Al-Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, September 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees has stepped aside indefinitely as an internal probe into alleged mismanagement at the organization proceeds, the body said on Wednesday.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner general of the agency known as UNRWA, will be replaced on an interim basis by the agency’s acting deputy chief Christian Saunders, it said. It did not give a date for Krahenbuhl’s expected return.

An internal ethics report has alleged mismanagement and abuses of authority at the highest levels of the agency, which has also faced a financial crisis after US funding cuts.

The agency said findings in the probe so far “revealed management issues which relate specifically to the commissioner general.”

“The commissioner-general has stepped aside until the completion of the process,” it said.

UN investigators have been probing the allegations in the confidential report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The report describes “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving Krahenbuhl, a Swiss national.

It says the allegations include senior management engaging in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”

Krahenbuhl himself was alleged to have been romantically involved with a colleague appointed in 2015 to a newly created role of senior adviser after an “extreme fast-track” process, the report says.

That enabled her to join him on international business class flights, the report alleges.

UNRWA came under heavy financial constraints after the United States suspended and later cut all funding for it in 2018.

US President Donald Trump’s administration, along with Israel, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by extending refugee status to millions of descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced out of homes in today’s Israel at the time of the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, rather than limiting refugee status only to the original refugees as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

The agency disputes that and says the services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians.

A number of other countries suspended their contributions pending the outcome of the probe into alleged mismanagement.

A Palestinian rides on a pickup carrying sacks of food aid provided by UNRWA in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on June 25, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

UNRWA was set up in the years after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands during the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel.

It provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees in Jordan. Lebanon and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories. It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians, and its UN mandate is set to be debated later this year.

A European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said he was “grateful for all (Krahenbuhl) did to stabilize the organization during a difficult time, but stepping aside now is the correct decision.”

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