UN appoints acting deputy at scandal-hit UNRWA

UN appoints acting deputy at scandal-hit UNRWA

After allegations of abuse in its top ranks, UN chief Guterres charges longtime UN official Christian Saunders with ensuring Palestinian refugee agency’s ‘operational continuity’

A closed section of the UNRWA Hebron Boys School in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
A closed section of the UNRWA Hebron Boys School in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday appointed a new acting deputy head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, whose top management is under investigation by the UN’s internal watchdog over allegations of abusing their authority.

Deputy Commissioner General Sandra Mitchell of the United States resigned in July and denied all allegations, in a confidential report by the ethics office of the UN Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA.

The report, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, claims the agency’s top management, including Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl, “have engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority.”

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres decided, in coordination with Krahenbuhl, to appoint Assistant Secretary-General Christian Saunders of the United Kingdom as the agency’s acting deputy commissioner general “to support UNRWA and ensure operational continuity.”

The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services is currently investigating allegations of misconduct in UNRWA, Dujarric said, and “the secretary-general is committed to acting, as appropriate, once he receives the findings and recommendations.”

Pierre Krähenbul, Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), speaks at a press conference in Gaza City on May 23, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Several countries have reportedly suspended contributions to UNRWA over the allegations.

Dujarric said Guterres considers UNRWA’s work “essential to Palestinian refugees” and calls on UN member nations and others to continue supporting the agency’s “crucial work.”

Citing information from some 25 current and past UNRWA directors and staff, the ethics report said an “inner circle” comprising Krahenbuhl, his deputy Mitchell, Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan and senior adviser Maria Mohammedi have bypassed normal decision-making processes and sidelined field and program directors and other senior staff. Shahwan also left UNRWA in July.

The report alleges that Krahenbuhl, who was appointed to lead UNRWA on March 30, 2014, started a relationship with Mohammedi late that year that “went beyond the professional,” created “a toxic environment,” and caused “frequent embarrassment.”

When directors who have since left raised it with Krahenbuhl, the report said, “they felt increasingly isolated or marginalized,” and one believed it was key to his contract not being renewed.

Acting deputy commissioner general of UNRWA and UN assistant secretary general for supply chain management Christian Saunders. (Courtesy)

The ethics office said Krahenbuhl established the post of senior adviser and followed “an extreme fast-track” to give the job to Mohammedi. She traveled with him on the vast majority of his business travels, using waivers so she could travel business class with him, the report alleged.

The report said some former executive office staff reported that Krahenbuhl was away from UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem for 28-29 days per month, claiming a daily allowance. It said he told a senior staff member in mid-November that he had made 52 trips up until that time in 2018.

UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai said Thursday that “at present we are dealing with allegations, not findings.”

“UNRWA is awaiting the outcome of the investigation and will not hesitate to take firm corrective measures or other management actions as may be required,” she said in an email to AP.

Saunders, the agency’s new acting deputy commissioner general, began his UN career in 1989 with UNRWA in Gaza.

Dujarric said he brings over 30 years of experience in humanitarian and international affairs to the job, including in senior management positions. He is currently UN assistant secretary general for supply chain management and previously served as assistant secretary general for the Office of Central Support Services.

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