UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday appointed a new acting deputy head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, whose top management is under investigation by the U.N.’s internal watchdog over allegations of abusing their authority.
Deputy Commissioner General Sandra Mitchell of the United States resigned in July and denied all allegations in a confidential report by the ethics office of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA.
The report, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, claims the agency’s top management, including Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl, “have engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres decided in coordination with Krahenbuhl to appoint Assistant Secretary-General Christian Saunders of the United Kingdom as the agency’s acting deputy commissioner general “to support UNRWA and ensure operational continuity.”
The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services is currently investigating allegations of misconduct in UNRWA, Dujarric said, and “the secretary-general is committed to acting, as appropriate, once he receives the findings and recommendations.”
Dujarric said Guterres considers UNRWA’s work “essential to Palestinian refugees” and calls on U.N. member nations and others to continue supporting the agency’s “crucial work.”
Guterres told reporters later that he has been “acting quite significantly to make sure that we strengthen UNRWA and UNRWA’s capacity to deliver.”
He said he has been appealing to all countries to support UNRWA, stressing that “we should distinguish what are the revelations made, or accusations made, in relation to members of the management of UNRWA from the needs to preserve UNRWA, to support UNRWA, and to make UNRWA effective.”
Asked if Krahenbuhl should resign, the secretary-general said he supports “due process” and any action he may take will be based on the results of the investigation.
In a statement Thursday, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed regret at the allegations of misconduct and “deep regret” about the decision of two donor countries to suspend their voluntary contributions to UNRWA in light of the claims and the investigation.
These contributions support UNRWA’s education, health care, relief and social service programs, the ministry said, and “we call on all to refrain from politicization of such humanitarian assistance.”
Citing information from some 25 current and past UNRWA directors and staff, the ethics report said an “inner circle” comprising Krahenbuhl, his deputy Mitchell, Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan and senior adviser Maria Mohammedi have bypassed normal decision-making processes and sidelined field and program directors and other senior staff. Shahwan also left UNRWA in July.
The report alleges that Krahenbuhl, who was appointed to lead UNRWA on March 30, 2014, started a relationship with Mohammedi late that year that “went beyond the professional,” created “a toxic environment,” and caused “frequent embarrassment.”
When directors who have since left raised it with Krahenbuhl, the report said “they felt increasingly isolated or marginalized” and one believed it was key to his contract not being renewed.
The ethics office said Krahenbuhl established the post of senior adviser and followed “an extreme fast-track” to give the job to Mohammedi. She traveled with him on the vast majority of his business travels, using waivers so she could travel business class with him, the report alleged.
The report said some former executive office staff reported that Krahenbuhl was away from UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem for 28-29 days per month, claiming a daily allowance. It said he told a senior staff member in mid-November that he had made 52 trips up until that time in 2018.
UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai said Thursday that “at present we are dealing with allegations not findings.”
“UNRWA is awaiting the outcome of the investigation and will not hesitate to take firm corrective measures or other management actions as may be required,” she said in an email to AP.
Saunders, the agency’s new acting deputy commissioner-general, began his U.N. career in 1989 with UNRWA in Gaza.
Dujarric said he brings over 30 years of experience in humanitarian and international affairs to the job, including in senior management positions. He is currently U.N. assistant secretary-general for supply chain management and previously served as assistant secretary-general for the Office of Central Support Services.