Investigation by Le Temps: Pierre Krähenbühl Leaves UNRWA Amid Corruption Scandal

The UNRWA Storm 1/3 

Pierre Krähenbühl, the man who wanted to save the Palestinians

Le Temps, 19 May 2021

 

By Luis Lema

The bombardments that hit the Gaza Strip these days once again highlight the crucial role played by UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees. Its health centres are overwhelmed, tens of thousands of people have found shelter in its schools. Of Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants, almost 1.5 million depend on UNRWA’s assistance, after they (or their ancestors) were expelled from their homes following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

 

This article was conceived before the conflict erupted. Pierre Krähenbühl of Switzerland took over as head of UNRWA in 2014, before resigning five years later, for reasons that are still not fully explained. It seemed all the more important for us to come back to it, as it is another Swiss, Philippe Lazzarini, who is today holding the reins of the organization and facing, with it, this new war.

 

The photo is one of those that make history. In a devastated Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, in Syria, Pierre Krähenbühl walks alone among the ruins, his gaze focused. He is “the first senior official to have had access to the camp in years,” notes, admiringly, the website of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The date is July 3, 2018. However, on this day, in Jerusalem or Gaza, the atmosphere is quite different. The UN agency is struggling with an unprecedented financial crisis. Hundreds of positions are under threat and letters of dismissal have been sent out. Sorrow and anger are rife among the agency’s employees. Internal revolt is rumbling, but the Commissioner-General is busy elsewhere.

 

This way of showing off has contributed to the resentment against Pierre Krähenbühl among a considerable part of UNWRA’s senior staff. It is emblematic: as soon as he arrived in 2014, the new Commissioner-General began crisscrossing the globe in search of funds, practically leaving his organization to its own devices. “He had become a rock star with messianic overtones,” chuckles one person who knew him. “He quickly stopped listening to those around him and

 

started to preach to them. Not only did he know nothing about the workings of UNRWA, but he did nothing to familiarize himself with it,” adds a director with more than 20 years of experience in the organization. In Switzerland, the former ambassador François Nordmann says: “At the UN, it is the Secretary-General who makes policy. It is not the role of his clerks, even when they seem to act with a mandate from above.”

 

The “farm”

 

A Pierre Krähenbühl so carried away by his mission, as if intoxicated by the possibility of speaking publicly after having undergone the ICRC’s law of silence, that he forgot to run the organization of which he was the head? At that point, UNRWA began to earn an unattractive nickname: “the farm”. A farm in which, for lack of guards, the animals frolic happily, at the risk of letting the strongest win. Or the smartest.

 

The discomfort had become so great that some people admit to having uncorked a good bottle the day the Genevan decided to resign, on November 6, 2019, a few hours after he was informed of the results of the investigation commissioned about him by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Pierre Krähenbühl, one of Switzerland’s brightest and most respected “humanitarians”, was dismissed as a foreign body, while disciplinary actions were taken against his main acolytes and the organization would be decapitated.

 

Since then, it has remained a mystery as to exactly what the former Commissioner-General was accused of. The final report on the allegations against him – of which at least the (Swiss) Federal Department of Foreign Affairs has received a copy, and which support groups for Pierre Krähenbühl in Switzerland are demanding be published – is supposed to remain secret, in accordance with UN procedures. Following an RTS documentary broadcast in December 2020, the assertion that this report does not contain any decisive elements against the former head of UNRWA has nevertheless gained ground. Krähenbühl himself asserts that the report cleared him of “98%” of the accusations that prompted the investigation.

 

“Thorough investigation”

 

In an interview with Le Temps, Pierre Krähenbühl insisted: “The investigation concerning me, in which I actively participated, was thorough and lasted eight months. Its conclusions cleared me of the serious charges brought against me (fraud, corruption, management of funds, etc.) and retained only a few management failures. I think it is time for everyone to take note and move on. To me, those are the results that are the real deal today.”

 

In fact, beyond the secrecy of the document, this statement poses a problem: the resignation of the Commissioner-General interrupted the UN (disciplinary) process against him. Two sources confirm that, far from being trivial, these “management failures” would have led to inevitable disciplinary action against the former head of UNRWA if he had not left his post. Pierre Krähenbühl retorts that nothing of the sort was ever communicated to him. But upon receiving the report, Antonio Guterres placed the head of UNRWA on administrative leave. This is not a decision to be taken lightly: within the UN, such a measure is required when the continued employment of a person “poses a danger to the organization.”

In the course of its own investigation, Le Temps gathered some 15 interviews and testimonies from among the most senior UNRWA staff, as well as from diplomats and officials from donor countries. They describe the workings of a “farm” that Le Temps wanted to understand, where there is a concentration of power, favoritism, and irregular decision-making. Most of the people we spoke to asked that their names not be published.

 

The Takkenberg report

When he arrived in Jerusalem in 2014, Pierre Krähenbühl had an excellent reputation for probity and commitment within the ICRC, where he had worked for more than twenty years, twelve of them as director of operations. “His great knowledge of the field, his eloquence, his youthfulness, added to his way of explaining the rights of Palestinian refugees in a convincing and articulate way. We were all very impressed.” Lex Takkenberg had already spent three decades with UNRWA. No one knows it yet, but this man would later become one of the protagonists of the affair, collecting, on behalf of the agency’s Ethics Office which he heads, the complaints that land on his desk.

 

In his report, which will be leaked resoundingly in July 2019, 20 directors (of the agency’s 25 or so), as well as other staff members, say they are willing to testify. “Put together, the pieces of the puzzle provided a very ugly picture of the situation,” says the Dutch-born lawyer.

Before submitting his report to Antonio Guterres in December 2018, Lex Takkenberg took care to consult a committee of experts from outside UNRWA (the Advisory Committee on Internal Oversight) that oversees its good governance. Their cry of alarm was unanimous, so much so that they informed Secretary-General Guterres directly of the extent of the danger, even before the Takkenberg report reached him.

 

The testimonies gathered internally, as well as the resentment that still permeate the discussions, contradict the image that Pierre Krähenbühl has built up outside the organization. Particularly in the face of Donald Trump, who in 2018 froze U.S. contributions of $365 million a year, the Swiss has earned a reputation as the “savior of UNRWA.”

 

But some are not far from thinking he was threatening to become its gravedigger. Pierre Krähenbühl was the highest-ranking Swiss diplomat at the United Nations. Despite his departure from UNRWA, the continuing gap between these two perceptions and the questions posed by the “Krähenbühl affair” to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) are of public interest. The aim here is to confront these perceptions with the facts.

 

“Hold your troops”

 

“In international organizations, and mainly in UNRWA, which is very fragmented and almost serves as a state structure for Palestine, internal management is essential. The Commissioner- General has to be present. He has to be able to hold his troops together and bang his fist on the

 

table. But Pierre Krähenbühl was not there. The atmosphere had become unbearable, like never before,” notes the Swiss-Palestinian researcher Jalal Al Husseini, who has been studying the organization for a long time and is a consultant to the Swiss Confederation.

Several interlocutors maintain that these dysfunctions were known long before Donald Trump entered the White House. “The first serious doubts appeared as early as 2015,” explains one of them. “Pierre Krähenbühl’s absence and the problems it was causing had become public knowledge, but everyone was convinced that it could be much worse if UNRWA were to reveal its internal flaws. So we let it go.”

 

Among the donor countries that have repeatedly expressed their concerns: Switzerland, but also the United States under Barack Obama. Very quickly, the UN headquarters in New York conducted its own discreet investigation. The result: “Antonio Guterres [who arrived at the head of the UN on January 1, 2017] knew about it from his first day,” they say.

 

Feeling blindsided, UNRWA directors and deputies began to seethe. WhatsApp groups sprang up to share unpleasant experiences. “These people sometimes have thousands of employees under their responsibility. Each one of them has more experience with the UN than Pierre Krähenbühl had,” notes an executive of the organization. But when they finally managed to get direct access to him, they were told platitudes that were often useless.

 

The same source railed against the idea that these criticisms could have been politically motivated, or that they were part of an Israeli-American plot to weaken the agency: “These people are very committed to the Palestinian issue. If they did not shout louder, it is precisely because they were afraid that their words would be used by those who advocate the dismantling of UNRWA. These are the people who kept the agency going before Krähenbühl arrived. And they are the ones who continue to do so after his departure.”

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The UNRWA Storm 2/3

A look at UNRWA, an agency adrift in the absence of its boss

 Le Temps, 31 May 2021

Luis Lema

While Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl travels to collect the missing funds for the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, a few senior officials take over and endanger the organisation. They were investigated by the UN, but the results were never made public.

 

In the absence of Pierre Krähenbühl, who was busy with his numerous trips from the moment he took office in 2014, the role of the American Deputy Commissioner-General, Sandra Mitchell (who took office in January 2015), as well as Hakam Shahwan, who was promoted to “Chief of Staff”, will grow. Both know each other well. They have been posted together in Baghdad. They will soon be practically the only masters on board, the first in Amman, the second in Jerusalem. “Above Mitchell and Shahwan, there is no one else. There is no one else but the sky”: the phrase becomes the rallying code for those who feel sidelined in the configuration that has been set up.

 

Hakam Shahwan is Palestinian. He owns a restaurant in Jerusalem, operates in Amman, and knows how to make his business work by using his contacts. “The conflicts of interest were obvious,” says a senior UNRWA official.

 

Shahwan makes incomprehensible promotions, expands his field of action far beyond his job description, and intervenes in all matters. Often, the Chief of Staff insists on paying suppliers in cash, in violation of all the rules – “It’s for Taled”, he might say mysteriously – including for security-related matters, such as the installation of surveillance cameras. For those in the accounting department who were surprised by these practices, retaliation was a concern. “When work contracts or visas had to be renewed, things were allowed to drag on,” says a source. Shahwan would say, ‘Your file is on Pierre’s desk. But he is travelling. He hasn’t had time to look at it.”

 

Another executive in the organisation says: “Everything had become a transaction within the agency. A prospect of promotion or a bonus in exchange for a service rendered; a procedure that one agrees to violate today in exchange for a return of the favour tomorrow…”

 

An alarming report in April 2018

 

At least since April 2018, Pierre Krähenbühl has been warned of a whole series of elements that weigh on his “Chief of Staff”, and threaten the functioning of the organisation, according to a document from the agency’s oversight department that Le Temps has in its possession. These facts (19 in all) range from the out-of-pocket purchase of a state-of-the-art iPhone to reprisals against members of the oversight department, from irregular appointments to unjustified dismissals. At the same time, however, the Commissioner-General’s inner circle continues to affectionately refer to Shahwan as ‘our emir’.

 

As a Palestinian, Shahwan was not allowed to cross the Jordanian border without his car being searched by the Israelis. He puts UNRWA’s international drivers, who enjoy diplomatic immunity, under his direct authority. On several occasions, Erdinch Lutfiev, one of these drivers, has seen in the trunk of the car on the way to or from Amman, cargo that, according to him, had no connection with UNRWA activities. Le Temps learned this from other sources. When it contacted the driver – who has meanwhile been dismissed but is still in court to challenge his dismissal – he was reluctant to talk directly about his case for fear that the outcome of his trial would be compromised. He admits, however, that he “saw with his own eyes things that looked suspicious. That’s why Shahwan wanted me to leave the agency,” he believes.

 

A former senior official of the Amman headquarters notes: “In the context of the Middle East, these ways of doing things were becoming extremely dangerous, and jeopardising the very future of the agency. The Israelis would have been delighted to get their hands on this kind of information. In fact, they might have had it.

 

Contacted, Hakam Shahwan assures us that he was not involved in the driver’s dismissal. “These are fabricated lies that damage my reputation,” he said.

 

Regarding the alleged actions of his Chief of Staff, Pierre Krähenbühl says: “None of this has been indicated to me. Moreover, the UN investigation report on me does not address these points. The former Commissioner-General adds: “As I have not seen the conclusions concerning them, I cannot comment on the investigations of other colleagues.

 

“The candidate who scored 38 points must pass”

 

It is 5 March 2018. The name of Hakam Shahwan, UNRWA’s de facto number three, comes up on the phone of a senior agency official. With 16 candidates vying for an important position at Jordan HQ, Shahwan explains that a “special friend” of Sandra Mitchell, the Deputy Commissioner- General (i.e. the number 2), must be put through to the second round. This “special friend” is in fact the husband of the Deputy.

 

The man who receives the call is so stunned by the order that he takes a screenshot of his phone to keep track of the call. It was 10:12 a.m. and the conversation had lasted 15 minutes. Fearing reprisals from the highest level, he hesitates to talk about it. But he ends up confiding in his immediate boss.

 

This call from Hakam Shahwan was not the result of a thoughtless impulse. At first, he had tried to convince [HR] to change the rules of the game and waive any test for the job. Faced with the reluctance of the senior managers, he had to find another way to favour the special friend. This is not easy: within the UN agency, the rules of procedure are very strict and the candidates’ files are anonymised. In order to carry out his aims, he needs to have access to the database. Shahwan did this, with the help of a human resources person whose appoinment he himself had helped to secure. “The candidate who has scored 38 points must pass,” the head of personnel said over the phone. Only one of them has achieved this result, and that is the husband of “number 2”.

 

Pierre Krähenbühl informed

 

Pierre Krähenbühl was informed of this particular case on 21 March 2018, as shown by a series of documents obtained by Le Temps. This serious breach of the rules requires, according to the agency’s oversight department, “immediate action”. “The very heart of our accountability system is at stake,” the report says. But the Commissioner-General will not act.

 

The [Deputy’s] husband, Robert Langridge, who eventually made it to the second round, ultimately failed due to a lack of skills. However, six months later, he was given an equivalent position as Deputy Field Director, also in Jordan. For this second attempt, as for the first, Hakam Shahwan insisted on being part of the selection panel of candidates. In the three-member panel, he will be accompanied by the same HR person whose appointment he had supported, according to the oversight department.

 

On Langridge’s appointment, Hakam Shahwan says: “The process was followed and the OIOS investigation found no influence from my side. He added: “The Commissioner-General approved the selection (of the panel) and did not discuss with me any concerns about the recruitment process.

 

For her part, Sandra Mitchell did not respond to requests from Le Temps. Hakam Shahwan, Sandra Mitchell and her husband were among those who left UNRWA when the UN investigators began to take a closer look at them.

 

“I was becoming an enemy”

 

The evocation of this episode still makes Nick Kaldas’ voice tremble with anger, when contacted at his home in Australia. At the time of the events, he was the Director of UNRWA’s Internal Oversight Department, the very person who alerted Pierre Krähenbühl. The man is no neophyte. He was once the deputy head of the 22,000-strong Sydney Regional Police. He was also one of the lead investigators in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. On the phone, he describes unanswered emails, increasingly infrequent meetings with the Commissioner-General – “I dreamed of having one per month, but he was away.” He became the object of pressure. Then rumours and complaints, orchestrated, he says, by the Commissioner- General’s inner circle. “The more I demanded transparency, the more I became an enemy,” he says. The affair with the Deputy’s husband, his reports that went unheeded, and the lack of interest shown by the Commissioner-General, all served to undermine him. He resigned a few weeks later, in May 2018.

 

About this appointment [of the spouse of the Deputy Commissioner-General], Pierre Krähenbühl said in the December 2020 TV documentary of Temps Présent: “I have made inquiries… yes, it is allowed. But even with these parameters in mind, I think I should have said to him at the time, “Let’s not take this risk, it will inevitably lead to bad interpretations.” Clearly, it was a mistake and we could have avoided it.”

 

Nick Kaldas, now semi-retired, is of Egyptian origin. “As I approached the end of my career, I was attracted to the idea of giving practical help to the Palestinians. That’s why I applied to UNRWA. For him, as for many of his colleagues, the disillusionment was great. “The directors, at that time, lost faith in the organisation,” he summarises. But reprisals for “whistleblowers” are commonplace, as other documents consulted by Le Temps show.

 

An internal judgment

 

This operation of the management team around the former Commissioner-General was brought to light by the ruling of an internal UNRWA Tribunal of 10 November 2020, following an internal complaint made for facts dating back to the summer of 2019, but whose origins, described by the judge, partly overlap with the episodes described above.

 

The verdict did not make any noise in Switzerland. Pierre Krähenbühl was found guilty of “flagrant violation of the fundamental values of the UN” for having tried to conceal the real reasons for a dismissal and disguise them as a voluntary resignation, accompanied by positive assessments of the employee. The 43-page verdict handed down by French Judge Jean-François Cousin deals, among other things, with disguised CVs and retaliation against a whistleblower.

 

The judge puts this verdict in a more general context: “It is clear that a number of irregularities were committed at least over a period of two or three years by certain senior managers of the agency. The context is such, the judge continued, that it “obliges the court to have serious doubts about the veracity of the testimony and statements.”

 

More specifically, with regard to Pierre Krähenbühl, he called for his successor at the head of UNRWA to take possible action against him, “to enforce accountability.” This is a bizarre situation: if the Swiss were to return to the UN system today, his successor, Philippe Lazzarini, also Swiss, would be obliged to consider sanctioning him.

 

Pierre Krähenbühl gave a written answer to Le Temps on this subject: “This case is not related to the OIOS (UN Office of Internal Oversight Services) investigation, nor to my resignation. It is a procedure that was concluded almost a year after my departure from UNRWA, without my having been asked to testify about the facts, and which is now the subject of a formal appeal by UNRWA, which is contesting its conclusions.

 

UNRWA confirms the existence of this appeal, on behalf of the current Commissioner-General. The case is in the hands of the UN Appeals Tribunal and is therefore outside the internal framework of UNRWA.

 

In an interview with Le Temps, Pierre Krähenbühl also made this general comment: “In 2018, UNRWA was subjected to an unprecedented financial and political attack [the Trump administration reduced and then cut its contributions to UNRWA]. I took a leadership role in the campaign to save the organisation by raising nearly half a billion dollars in additional funding. As always, such an outcome is a collective success, with essential contributions from many colleagues and external actors. During this very demanding year, we had to make some difficult internal decisions, such as budget cuts and redundancies. Not everyone was happy about these decisions. This has earned us criticism.”

 

In March 2021, RTS revealed that Pierre Krähenbühl had been appointed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as special envoy of the organisation’s president and head of delegation in Beijing.

 

***

 

Five “interrelated” investigation reports, says UN

 

Already last year, donor states were informed that the five investigation reports would have to “be circulated together.”

 

One can imagine a certain nervousness at the UN Glass Palace in New York on 19 May 2020. At issues is the revealing to [UN Member] States the consequences of the investigations that targeted Pierre Krähenbühl and other UNRWA officials. The suspense is over: “disciplinary action” has been taken against four of them. As for the Commissioner-General, “measures were taken” in November 2019, notes enigmatically Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the Chief of Staff of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. As a reminder, the Swiss had announced his resignation on 6 November 2019, a few hours after receiving indications that the conclusions of the report on him only identified “some management failings” on his part.

 

The minutes of this meeting, intended to remain confidential, but of which Le Temps has obtained a copy, are worth looking at in detail. No “fraud” was identified, but it remains to be explained what caused the agency to lose its key managers, including its Commissioner-General. The case of the Deputy Commissioner-General, the American Sandra Mitchell, is particularly revealing. She went on holiday with her husband in Australia and never returned to her office in Amman, Jordan, while the investigation progressed. Her departure is effective 25 July 2019. “She was informed of the decision that would have been taken against her, in terms of human resources, if she had not left the agency,” says another UN official. An elegant way of suggesting that by not seeking to renew her contract, she avoided the affront of not being reappointed.

 

At the time, the investigation was not yet complete regarding Hakam Shahwan, the “emir”, who finally “separated” himself from UNRWA after he sent an anonymous email to the Al Jazeera channel in order to discredit the head of the UNRWA Ethics Office, Lex Takkenberg, who was collecting complaints about him. The investigation into Sandra Mitchell’s husband, who had been appointed to the post of Deputy Director in a procedure that did not respect the rules, and which had been approved by Pierre Krähenbühl, was still ongoing at the time.

 

Another “separation” was that of the Special Adviser, Maria Mohammedi. But not before UNRWA had “recovered an amount of money due to it”, the minutes of the meeting state. In fact, Le Temps has learned that the investigators discovered that she had asked a rich donor for tens of thousands of dollars to finance her son’s studies, on the sidelines of her official meetings with Pierre Krähenbühl. However, the same sum had also been granted to her by UNRWA, and she therefore received the sum twice. Maria Mohammedi did not respond to our requests [for comment].

 

Pierre Krähenbühl also denies any wrongdoing on his part in this matter. In a written reply, he emphasised: ‘It was not my responsibility to follow up this type of issue. There is no mention of this matter in the conclusions of the OIOS report concerning me.

 

The Swiss man is sticking to the version that the investigations “are independent of each other”. Only the content of his own report, which has not yet been made public, is “authentic”, he argues.

 

However, this reading is contradicted by the UN itself. “These cases are interrelated,” said Catherine Pollard, UN Under-Secretary-General, during the same meeting. “The reports will therefore have to be circulated together,” she added, assuring that the UN was “working on a global communication strategy” in this regard. The outgoing team, as the content of this discussion establishes, is indeed considered collectively responsible.

 

Need for transparency

 

But beyond these cases, it is above all a question of trying to limit the damage caused to the agency. Everyone here knows that this is a crucial issue. UNRWA has long been subject to countless attacks, culminating in Donald Trump’s decision to cut off US funding and a campaign led by the Israeli right, and it must be seen to be above reproach in terms of management. But it has been seriously vulnerable to its critics, according to a list drawn up at the same meeting by Philippe Lazzarini, the successor to Pierre Krähenbühl, also a Swiss. Most of the management problems were linked to the organisational culture, to over-centralised decision-making, and to the lack of matching of responsibilities and competences,” he explained to the main donors. This led some of the staff to share a sense of powerlessness.

 

A year later, the reports have been completed, but the “global communications strategy” promised by the UN has not made much progress. For example, the UN has not responded to any of our questions about the reports, their content or their “interrelatedness”.

 

For its part, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) confirms Ignazio Cassis’ statement that the Confederation requested and received these five reports, which concern “senior UNRWA managers”. As for the possible release of these reports, the FDFA stresses that they are “classified as highly confidential by the United Nations” and merely states: “Switzerland considers it important that transparency be achieved and has taken steps to make the conclusions of the reports public.

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The UNRWA Storm 3/3

Philippe Lazzarini: “UNRWA’s current mechanisms should no longer allow the rules to be circumvented

Le Temps, 31 Mai 2021

By Luis Lema

 

UNRWA’s Commissioner-General answers questions on the organisation’s current challenges, the situation in Gaza and the reforms undertaken following the departure of the former management team.

 

Philippe Lazzarini, the current Commissioner General of UNRWA, returned a few days ago from Gaza, where he met a population traumatised by the eleven days of Israeli bombardments that preceded the ceasefire on 20 May. He talks about the feeling of the Gazans of having lived “hell on earth”, but also about the reforms undertaken by UNRWA to overcome the “management crisis” experienced in 2019. Reforms aiming, among other things, to improve the transparency of decision-making processes and the role of supervisors.

 

Le Temps: You have just returned from Gaza, where Israeli bombing has killed over 200 people. What did you see?

 

Philippe Lazzarini: I saw a traumatised population, which is once again questioning the reasons for this cycle of violence. People who have lived with this feeling of fear in their stomachs and who described to me “hell on earth”. People who, when they haven’t lost a loved one, have felt as if they were constantly close to death. Like the story of the mothers who tell me that every day their family members wondered what was better: to sleep together or apart, to be killed together or not? This sense of fear and terror seems to have been omnipresent. And coming back from Gaza, I think there is an invisible pandemic that is hitting the population, this pandemic of trauma.

 

You mention a feeling of repetition…

 

In Gaza there is a desire for a normal life but also a very strong resentment of a situation that prevents people from living that life. There is a fear that history will repeat itself. It’s clear that at the end of a conflict we talk about a humanitarian truce, and that’s very important. UNRWA will try to restore its services as quickly as possible and bring back a semblance of normality. But we are aware that this will not be enough and that it is now time for a different approach. If rehabilitation and reconstruction are to be sustainable, they must be accompanied by a serious political trajectory. These latest events show us that if you don’t address the root causes of the occupation, the blockade, etc., you simply set up a new cycle of violence.

 

The other day someone reminded me of the definition of insanity, which is expecting different results by continuing to apply the same recipes. People are exhausted. There have now been fourteen years of blockades, four wars in thirteen years… There is no real prospect of things changing unless there is a real policy to deal with this problem.

 

Can UNRWA goods and personnel now enter Gaza unhindered?

 

What is special about this latest conflict is that for eleven days there was no humanitarian truce. Unlike previous episodes, it was impossible to operate with any guarantees on either side. This made the environment much more dangerous. It should also be remembered that the wars in Gaza have the peculiarity that people have nowhere to flee. They can’t cross any borders. 58 of our UNRWA schools have taken in up to 70,000 people to provide temporary shelter. UN locations have not been the target of attacks.

 

This reminder is necessary to understand that no one was able to enter until the ceasefire was declared. Since then, Erez, which is the crossing point for humanitarians and pedestrians, is open. As for the Kerem Shalom crossing, through which goods pass, the situation is different again. Purely humanitarian goods can enter, but the Israelis have revisited the list of other goods to avoid “double use”. Overall, the passage is therefore more restrictive than before

 

Le Temps has just published a series of articles confirming serious internal problems at UNRWA in recent years. Some of its senior staff, including its head, have left the agency. Has UNRWA undertaken any reforms to ensure that this does not happen again?

 

Firstly, the UN Secretary-General appointed a new Commissioner-General, a new Deputy Commissioner-General, and there is indeed a senior management team in place. All this took time. Already, at the time of the transition crisis, the management crisis, the team in place at the time started to initiate a number of actions aimed at improving transparency and decision making within the agency, as well as improving accountability. For example, we now have an Ombudsman function that has been created, as well as an Ethics function that is completely independent of the agency.

 

Finally, we have set up a committee which has become the decision-making body for the Commissioner-General. That means that from now on, any new policy or strategy is decided at this level. The decisions are then communicated from that level.

 

So a whole series of measures have been put in place to address the concerns that were expressed in 2018-2019. I think we can say today that this management initiative phase, in response to the crisis, has come to an end and that the organisation is going to focus more on its modernisation and its efficiency in delivering services.

 

The rules and procedures seemed to be sound before, but they have been broken or bypassed. Will your reforms be enough to restore donor confidence?

 

I can say with confidence that donors and member states, who follow us very closely on these issues, have indicated that the agency is meeting their expectations. Today, the mechanisms in place should no longer unknowingly allow these rules to be circumvented, for example.

 

The five reports resulting from the investigation, which the UN calls “interrelated”, have not been made public. Do you advocate their release?

 

There are good reasons why internal reports should remain internal to the UN system. We should not forget that the mechanisms set up by the UN Secretariat on these issues meet the expectations of UN Member States. I do not believe that a precedent should be set and that making these confidential internal reports public should become the norm in the future.

 

Relations between Switzerland and UNRWA have not been easy in recent years. Where do we stand?

 

I would describe the relationship as good. I met with Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis in November. Switzerland has maintained the same level of commitment to the agency, even though it has unfortunately reduced the duration from four to two years. In particular, Switzerland is supporting us in a pilot project to create jobs for young people, and has supported the preparation of an international conference to be held in October. From June, the Confederation will also deploy one of its diplomats to the UNRWA offices. So there is very substantial support, and I will be on an official visit to Bern at the end of June where I will meet Ignazio Cassis again as well as parliamentarians. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee as well as parliamentarians who are members of various committees, such as the Switzerland-Israel Support Committee or the Switzerland-Palestine Support Committee.

 

What is the situation of the agency in terms of budget?

 

This year we are seeing the welcome and necessary return of the United States. But despite this return, the funds still do not meet the needs of UNRWA’s critical services. Our budget is not yet [fully] funded, and in this respect our situation continues to be precarious, as other countries have also withdrawn in recent years due to the covid crisis.

 

In short, we are in a better situation today than we were at this time last year, but we still have a large projected deficit at this stage. I am confident, however, that the US decision will lead other states to take similar decisions, and that we will pass this year.

UN Watch

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