Switzerland suspends funding to crisis-hit UN agency for Palestinians

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Switzerland on Tuesday said it was suspending funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees after an ethics report revealed alleged mismanagement and abuse of authority at the agency’s highest levels. The internal report by UNRWA’s own ethics department, a copy of which has been 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) to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

But Bern said it was “suspending any additional contributions” to UNRWA, already in crisis due to US funding cuts, pending the findings of UN 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 on-going.

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 organisations,” 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 fuelled “unrealistic” hope among Palestinians of return after 70 years of exile.

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 vital schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

But the ethics report paints a picture of a small number of mostly foreign senior leaders centralising 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 advisor to the commissioner-general after an “extreme fast-track” process, the report says.

The report was sent to the UN 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.

In 2018, 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 Palestinian refugees and NGOs.