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UNRWA chief resigns amid sexual misconduct, nepotism allegations against senior figures

Pierre Krähenbühl resigned indefinitely due to an ongoing internal UN investigation of misconduct allegations [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 November, 2019

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Pierre Krahenbuhl has resigned as head of the UN's Palestinian refugees agency amid an ongoing investigation into allegations of abuse of power against him and his 'inner circle'.

The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) stepped down on Wednesday following misconduct claims against him and the agency's management.

Pierre Krahenbuhl resigned indefinitely due as an internal UN investigation into the accusations continues.

A confidential internal ethics report in July 2019 accused Krahenbuhl and his "inner circle" of "abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".

It paints a picture of a small number of mostly foreign senior leaders centralising power and influence while disregarding UN checks and balances.

The findings surfaced after the agency lost its biggest individual donor, the United States, in September 2018. The report argued that this cut "served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision making power in members... increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm".

Allegations include "sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".

The report concluded that those being investigated could present "an enormous risk to the reputation of the UN" and said "their immediate removal should be carefully considered".

In particular, the report highlighted the relationship between Krahenbuhl and his senior adviser, Maria Mohammedi, which was described as going "beyond the professional" and creating a "toxic environment".

Krahenbuhl was alleged to have been romantically involved with Mohammedi, who he appointed in 2015 to a newly created role of senior adviser after an "extreme fast-track" process, the report says.

That enabled her to join him on international business class flights, the report alleges.

"I have rejected these accusations since the beginning and I continue to do so," Krahenbuhl told Swiss television station RTS.

"I can tell you clearly that there is no corruption case, nor fraud, nor mismanagement of funds received from donors," he said, adding that any personal relationship with a colleague "was confirmed as being non-existent by the internal report". 

Describing an atmosphere of "hyperpolarization", Krahenbuhl said he stepped down in order to give the organisation a needed "psychological shock".

The UNRWA said that it "is probably among the most scrutinised UN agencies in view of the nature of the conflict and complex and politicised environment it is working in".

Other international organisations have been accused of similar violations, however the international community was quick to cut funding to the Palestinian program which helps countless refugees. 

Without waiting for the outcome of any investigation, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium immediately suspended funding to the organisation. 

The Trump administration, along with Israel, accused UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that the report was "exactly why we stopped their funding".

The agency provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories, and employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.

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.

This story was updated to add extra details on Krahenbul's senior advisor and a quote from Krahenbul, as well as background to the UNRWA.

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