The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees resigned on Wednesday evening, hours after it was announced that he was stepping aside indefinitely over alleged misconduct.
“A short while ago, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Pierre Krahenbuhl, informed the Secretary-General that he was resigning, effective immediately,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told a news briefing.
Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is one of several senior people being investigated as part of a wide-ranging probe. 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 report describes “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving Krahenbuhl, a Swiss national.
It said 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 said.
The UN had earlier announced that Krahenbuhl had been placed on administrative leave as the probe proceeds.
In a statement on its website, it announced that Acting Deputy Commissioner-General Christian Saunders had been placed in charge on an interim basis.
“Over the last few months, UNRWA has initiated an internal review of its governance, management and accountability functions, so as to ensure it practices the highest standards of professionalism, transparency and efficiency,” the statement read. “The review revealed a number of areas which required strengthening, and the agency has already commenced corrective action and will be pursuing further initiatives and improvements over the coming months.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that reports on alleged mismanagement at UNRWA lends credence to its criticism of the agency and called for a full release of the probe’s findings.
“The reports reinforce Israel’s claims that a deep and fundamental change is needed in the agency’s operating model,” it said in a statement.
The ministry charged that under Krahenbuhl, UNWRA has become more politicized, “the deficit has ballooned” and the agency’s model was increasingly unsustainable.
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.
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.”