Switzerland suspends funding to UN agency for Palestinians after damning report
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Switzerland suspends funding to UN agency for Palestinians after damning report

Foreign minister says Bern won’t make any more payments to UNRWA until investigation into alleged mismanagement, corruption, sexual misconduct is completed

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Switzerland on Tuesday said it was suspending funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants after an ethics report revealed alleged mismanagement and abuse of authority at the agency’s highest levels.

The internal report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s own ethics department, a copy of which was seen by AFP, includes allegations of sexual misconduct, nepotism and discrimination.

The Swiss foreign ministry told AFP in an email that it had already made its annual contribution of 22.3 million Swiss francs ($22.5 million, 20.2 million euros) to UNRWA.

But Bern said it was “suspending any additional contributions” to UNRWA — already in crisis due to US funding cuts — pending the findings of United Nations investigators who are examining the ethics report.

UNRWA, led by Swiss national Pierre Krahenbuhl, has declined to comment in detail on the internal report while the UN probe is ongoing.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, is interviewed in Jerusalem on January 19, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

But the document describes “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving Krahenbuhl.

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.”

Switzerland “attaches particular importance to good governance of international organizations,” the foreign ministry said, describing UNRWA as “an important multilateral partner for Switzerland.”

But Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in May called UNRWA “part of the problem” in the Middle East, as it fueled “unrealistic” hope among Palestinians of return after 70 years in refugee camps, denied citizenship by their host countries and not resettled in any other country.

UNRWA was set up in the years after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

It provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees and their descendants in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis talks to the media during a press conference after a meeting with his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Christodoulides in Nicosia, Cyprus, July 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Philipos Christou)

But the ethics report paints a picture of a small number of mostly foreign senior leaders centralizing power and influence while disregarding UN checks and balances.

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

The report was sent to the United Nations secretary general in December.

UN investigators have since visited UNRWA’s offices in Jerusalem and Amman, collecting information related to the allegations, sources familiar with the matter said.

Last year, US President Donald Trump’s administration cut all funding to UNRWA, and has called for it to be dismantled, with its services handed over to countries hosting the Palestinians and NGOs.

The 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 vital services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians who benefit from them.

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