White House demands info on any misuse of American funds by UNRWA

As UN probes alleged misconduct, envoy Greenblatt says administration defunded Palestinian refugee agency ‘in part due to UNRWA’s unsustainable business model and fiscal practices’

US Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks at a conference in New York City, June 16, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
US Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks at a conference in New York City, June 16, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

The White House is demanding information on whether the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees misused American funds, as part of an investigation into its conduct.

In a letter to the UN on Thursday, US Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt said reports of misconduct at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were “deeply concerning” and called for the UN probe to be as transparent as possible.

Noting that Washington was previously the largest donor to UNRWA, providing billions of dollars to the agency, including nearly $3 billion over the past decade, Greenblatt wrote that the administration was “strongly committed to ensuring fiscal transparency and accountability to the United States taxpayer.”

“If the investigation should yield any findings of impropriety — including…any related to potential misuse of US funds — we request immediate notification and access [to the findings],” he wrote.

In 2018, the United States suspended and later cut all funding for UNRWA, causing a financial crisis that threatened to see its schools and hospitals closed.

Greenblatt said that the US move was “in part due to UNRWA’s unsustainable business model and fiscal practices.”

Trump’s former UN envoy, Nikki Haley, took to Twitter earlier this week to say, “this is exactly why we stopped their funding.”

On Monday Greenblatt tweeted that “UNRWA’s model is broken/unsustainable & based on an endless expanding [number] of beneficiaries. Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better.”

A confidential UN internal ethics report leaked on Monday claimed mismanagement and abuses of authority at the highest levels of UNRWA, even as the organization faced an unprecedented crisis after US funding cuts. The allegations are now being scrutinized by UN investigators.

The UN agency said it is cooperating fully with the investigation and that it cannot comment in detail because the probe is ongoing.

AFP obtained a copy of the report, which describes “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving UNRWA’s top official, Commissioner-General Pierre 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.”

A Palestinian man transports bags of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip ,on September 4, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

One senior official named in the report has left the organization due to “inappropriate behavior” linked to the investigation, UNRWA said, while another has resigned for what the agency called “personal reasons.”

The report was sent to the United Nations secretary-general in December, and UN investigators have since visited UNRWA’s offices in Jerusalem and Amman, collecting information related to the allegations, sources familiar with the matter said.

Krahenbuhl said in a statement to AFP that “if the current investigation — once it is completed — were to present findings that require corrective measures or other management actions, we will not hesitate to take them.”

The agency provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump’s administration, along with Israel, accuse 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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