Switzerland, Netherlands suspend UNRWA funding over 'sexual misconduct, discrimination'

Switzerland, Netherlands suspend UNRWA funding over 'sexual misconduct, discrimination'
3 min read
31 July, 2019
An internal ethics report revealed an array of allegations against officials in the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, including claims of sexual misconduct and other ethical abuses.
UNRWA has been in crisis since last year, when the US cut its funding [AFP]
Switzerland and the Netherlands announced on Wednesday they were cutting funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, after an internal ethics report revealed allegations of mismanagement and abuses at its highest levels.

The $14.5 million contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has been put on hold, the Ministry of Development Cooperation told Al Jazeera.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it had already made its $2.5 million anual contribution but would be "suspending any additional contributions" to the UN agency over the scandal.

The organisation already faces an unprecedented funding crisis after US funding cuts.

The allegations included in the report by the agency's ethics department, first published by Al Jazeera on Monday, are now being scrutinised by UN investigators.

UNRWA said it iscooperating fully with the investigation and that it cannot comment in detail as the probe is ongoing.

The Netherlands has "expressed to the UN in New York and to UNRWA its great concern and asked for clarification", the country's development cooperation ministry said.

The country is also "in consultation with other donors" over the allegations.

Until the Netherlands receives a "satisfactory response" from the UN, its annual contribution to UNRWA will be on hold.

Additional Swiss contributions likewise depend upon the results of the UN investigation.

The report describes "credible and corroborated" allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving UNRWA's top official, Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl.

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

It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.

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

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".

One senior official named in the report has left the organisation due to "inappropriate behaviour" linked to the investigation, UNRWA said, while another has resigned for what the agency called "personal reasons".

UNRWA said in response to AFP questions 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".

"Over the past 18 months, UNRWA has faced immense financial and political pressure, but its entire staff body has steered it, serving 5.4 million Palestine refugees through the most unprecedented financial crisis in its near 70 years of history," it said.

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

Trump's administration, along with Israel, accuse UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The agency disputes that and says the vital services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians who benefit from them.