Red Cross taps controversial former UNRWA commissioner as its new director-general

Pierre Krahenbuhl resigned as head of UN agency for Palestinians amid internal probe into alleged mismanagement, ethical abuses; ICRC faces criticism from Israel and Gaza amid war

Head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Pierre Krahenbuhl, speaks with a reporter during an interview with AP on September 27, 2018, in New York. (AP/Andres Kudacki)
Head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Pierre Krahenbuhl, speaks with a reporter during an interview with AP on September 27, 2018, in New York. (AP/Andres Kudacki)

The Red Cross announced on Friday that it has appointed Pierre Krahenbuhl, a controversial former head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, as its next director-general.

The Swiss national, with more than 30 years of experience in the humanitarian sector, will take over in April, when current chief Robert Mardini completes his four-year term.

“The Assembly of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has appointed Pierre Krahenbuhl as the organization’s next director-general,” it said in a statement. “He is recognized as a strategic and purpose-driven leader with deep organizational experience and dedication to the ICRC.”

Krahenbuhl, 57, has spent 25 years in prominent roles at the ICRC and is currently serving as secretary-general to the ICRC assembly.

In 2014, Krahenbuhl was appointed commissioner-general of the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). He resigned from that position in 2019 amid an internal probe into alleged mismanagement and ethical abuses at the organization.

In the end, he was largely cleared of the allegations.

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)

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 such a status only to the original refugees, as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

Israel and other groups have also long argued that UNRWA school materials glorify terrorism and anti-Israel incitement.

The Foreign Ministry previously charged that under Krahenbuhl, UNRWA became more politicized.

The preliminary findings of the inquiry into UNRWA found “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, but revealed no “fraud or misappropriation of operational funds” by Krahenbuhl, the UN said at the time.

After resigning, Krahenbuhl himself described an atmosphere of “hyperpolarization” around the agency.

UNRWA at the time was facing attacks by the administration of former US president Donald Trump, which along with Israel accused it of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2018, Washington decided to suspend, then stop entirely its contribution to the agency’s budget, depriving it of its largest donor and sparking a funding crunch.

US President Joe Biden’s administration later fully restored the country’s support.

A Red Cross convoy carrying Israeli hostages heads to Egypt from the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Nov. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Krahenbuhl will be taking the helm of the ICRC as it grapples with its own funding shortage, which has forced it to make budget cuts and slash some 1,500 jobs.

The ICRC is also facing pressure over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular its response to the war raging in Gaza. Israel has accused the agency of failing to do anything to ensure the safety of hostages held by Hamas, including refusing to even attempt to deliver medicines handed over by family members, while it agreed to work with Hamas to transport freed hostages during the exchange deal, leading one family member of a hostage to deride the ICRC as a glorified Uber service.

The Swiss-based organization, founded 160 years ago to serve as a neutral intermediary between belligerents in conflict and to visit and assist prisoners of war, has been accused by both sides of not condemning the other and for insufficient help to those detained or being held hostage.

ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric told journalists this week the importance of maintaining the organization’s neutrality in all conflicts and crises.

“Without neutrality, we wouldn’t be able to operate, without confidentiality… we wouldn’t be successful,” she said.

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