SUMMARY OF THE SCANDAL
In July 2019, news broke of a major corruption scandal among UNRWA’s senior management. As reported by the media, a leaked confidential report from UNRWA’s ethics office detailed egregious abuses of authority at the highest levels. In the wake of the scandal, UNRWA’s Deputy Commissoner-General Sandra Mitchell and Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan, both of whom had been implicated in the abuse, resigned. Shahwan claimed his resignation was unrelated to the allegations. Mitchell stated she had resigned for personal reasons.
The ethics report was leaked to the media by a source close to UNRWA, after it appeared that the UN Secretary-General’s office, which reportedly received the report in December 2018, was not taking action. The allegations are currently being investigated by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
The implicated senior staff, referred to in the ethics report as the “inner circle,” are:
- Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl
- Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell
- Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan
- Senior Adviser to the Commissioner-General Maria Mohammedi
The allegations against them include “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation…and other abuses of authority” which led to an “exodus of senior and other staff” and a toxic and dysfunctional work environment.
Allegations against Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, include:
- Conducting a romantic affair with UNRWA employee Maria Mohammedi.
- Fast-tracking appointment of Mohammedi to the newly-created role of Senior Advisor to the Commissioner-General, so the two could be closer.
- As a result of the inappropriate personal relationship with Mohammedi, creating a toxic environment for colleagues and embarrassment with donors.
- Bringing Mohammedi on the majority of his business trips.
- Misusing his authority to obtain waivers for Mohammedi to travel business class while most other management traveled economy class.
- Being away from his duty station in Jerusalem and at Mohammedi’s duty station in Amman for 28-29 days per month, claiming daily subsistence allowance for those days.
- Launching the “Dignity is Priceless” fundraising campaign outside of the traditional fundraising mechanisms, causing friction with senior staff, some of whom left as a result.
Main allegation against Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell:
- Irregular recruitment of Mitchell’s spouse, Robert Langridge, who was appointed deputy director of UNRWA’s Jordan field office as of October 2018. The appointment violated the UN and UNRWA prohibition of conflicted spousal appointment.
Allegations against Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan, include:
- Behaving like a thug.
- Placing people loyal to him in positions of power.
- Undercutting the work of field directors.
- Circumventing field office chains of command and established processes and decision-making to effectively take over UNRWA operations in Jerusalem.
- Retaliating against driver who had filed a complaint against him, placing driver on administrative leave.
RESPONSE FROM DONORS
Within days of the story breaking, three major European donors announced they had suspended funding to UNRWA.
Switzerland: After admitting that it had funded the position for Krähenbühl’s mistress, a position specially created by Krähenbühl in 2015 for Mohammedi after he “took an interest in her,” the Swiss government announced it had temporarily frozen its annual payments to UNRWA totaling $22.7 million.
Netherlands: The Netherlands’ Ministry of Development expressed “great concern” over the news and announced that it was suspending its $14.5 million contribution until its government had “a satisfactory response from the UN in New York.”
Belgium: Belgian Minister of Development Alexander De Croo said: “if the claims are correct, then that is totally unacceptable,” and announced it was suspending further payments of $5.9 million to UNRWA.
One month later, media also reported that New Zealand had suspended funding to UNRWA.
Al Jazeera (see here, here, here, and here)
Washington Report (see here)
Agence France-Presse (see here)
Swissinfo (see here)
Jerusalem Post (see here)