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Two Countries Suspend Funding for UNRWA
Palestinians in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij pile sacks of flour outside an aid center run by UNRWA last July. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Two Countries Suspend Funding for UNRWA

Netherlands, Switzerland cite scandal while agency spokesman claims problems lie with individuals  

The Netherlands and Switzerland have suspended funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA.) The decision came following accusations of corruption by senior officials at the agency.

On Monday, a leaked confidential report of the United Nations (UN) Ethics Office in New York revealed “mismanagement” and “abuse of power” by senior officials of UNRWA, which serves Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Reportedly, the allegations include charges that UNRWA’s top official, commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl, engaged in “ethical abuse,” with other senior management officials being accused of “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”

Sami Mushasha, an UNRWA spokesperson, told The Media Line that the agency was informed in March of this year that an investigation was being launched to investigate allegations of misbehavior by UNRWA officials.

“The commissioner-general gave us clear instructions to fully cooperate with the investigation specialist,” he said.

Mushasha accused some critics of attempting to weaken UNRWA by spreading rumors that the agency itself is corrupt, rather than individuals who work for it.

“All of these kinds of charges are not correct and target the agency itself,” he stated.

Switzerland’s suspension of funding will affect the agency in 2020, as the $22.5 million it earmarked for 2019 has already been paid, Pierre Alain Elchenger, spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry, told the Russian news agency TASS. When contacted by The Media Line, a senior Swiss UN official refused to comment.

The Netherlands, which contributes about $15 million to the agency annually, will suspend payments “until we get satisfactory answers,” Sigrid Kaag, the Netherlands’ minister for international aid, told Netherlands Public Broadcasting station NOS.

Jassem Ajaka, a Lebanese economist and strategist, told The Media Line that the report by the UN Ethics Office was a positive sign that the UN was carefully monitoring the money given to UNRWA, although he expressed concern that the allegations against UNRWA “might be related to politics.”

Ajaka cautioned that if the investigation does show corruption at UNRWA, “we must differentiate whether the results are related to the so-called ‘deal-of-the-century’ [the way critics often refer to the Arab-Israeli peace plan being put forward by the Trump Administration – ed.] and the issue of settling Palestinian refugees outside of their homeland.

“In this case, the aim would be to enable the agency to help the Palestinian refugees being forced to settle in diaspora countries,” he stated, noting that the Trump Administration had significantly cut US funding to UNRWA, deeply affecting the agency’s budget.

“The Swiss and Dutch fund suspensions will worsen the already difficult financial situation of UNRWA,” Ajaka said.

He added that funding cuts to UNRWA would have serious consequences.

“Palestinian refugees will be affected enormously, as unemployment and poverty will increase in their countries of diaspora,” he told The Media Line. “Violence, theft and other illegal activities would increase among the refugees following a lack of financial support.”

In 2017, despite opposition from some US lawmakers and other officials, the State Department announced it would withhold more than $200 million from UNRWA-administered aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Washington’s contribution accounts for about half of UNWRA’s budget.

The Trump Administration justified the action by saying it was done to ensure “that aid funds provided by the US are spent in line with the national interests of the country and US taxpayers.”

As a result of the move, UNRWA said it was facing a budget deficit of $270 million and urged the international community to help make up for the budget shortfall.

Reacting to the current investigation of corruption in UNRWA, Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s Mideast peace envoy, tweeted: “We’re extremely concerned about UNRWA allegations. We urge a full & transparent investigation by the UN. UNRWA’s model is broken/unsustainable and based on an endless expanding of beneficiaries. Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better.”

Omar Abdullah, head of UN affairs at the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry, told The Media Line that UNRWA and its commissioner-general were being targeted for opposing American and Israeli policies on the Palestinians.

“The suspension of funds to UNRWA forms an advanced position that comes in line with the American and Israeli attacks on UNRWA,” Abdullah said, adding that even if there is corruption within UNRWA, its annual budget and the rights of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora have nothing to do with it.

“The Palestinian refugees shouldn’t be punished by cutting funds to the agency that supports them, especially since the investigation is still ongoing and results have not been revealed,” he stated.

According to UNRWA, one official named in the leaked report had left the organization over “improper conduct,” while another resigned “for personal reasons.” Beyond that, the agency said it would not comment on the matter until the investigation is over.

The agency, which employs some 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians, supports more than five million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, providing funding for health care, education and social services.

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