A damaging internal report has cast a dark shadow over the ethical behavior of top officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). As disclosed by Al Jazeera and AFP, the report cites "credible and corroborated reports" that members of an "inner circle" at the top of UNRWA, including Swiss Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, have engaged 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.” The report was sent to UN Secretary-General António Guterres in December.
As one would expect, reactions have been immediate. The Swiss Foreign Ministry has announced that it has “decided to temporarily stop payments to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).” Already in 2018, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis publicly criticized the role of UNRWA, saying it would be impossible to make peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority because “For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they want to return to their homeland,” he said. “For a long time the UNRWA was the solution to this problem, but today it has become part of the problem. It supplies the ammunition to continue the conflict. By supporting the UNRWA, we keep the conflict alive. It’s a perverse logic,” Cassis stated.
The Jewish News Syndicate trumpeted over the scandal: “Revelations of rampant wrongdoing in the corridors of the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) couldn’t have shamed a more worthy organization. Though normally it’s not nice to gloat over the misfortunes of others, the schadenfreude elicited by the news of inappropriate behavior going on behind the walls of this particularly vile organization was warranted.” An Israeli journalist, Ruthie Blum, tried to put another nail in the agency’s coffin: “Nothing short of shutting down UNRWA will be satisfactory since its very existence is a criminal scam….In the meantime, let us take some comfort in the agency’s well-earned public humiliation.”
“UNRWA is currently running on fumes,” charged U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt at the UN Security Council in late May. “It is time to face the reality that the UNRWA model has failed,” he said. “Palestinians in refugee camps were not given the opportunity to build any future; they were misled and used as political pawns,” he added. The United States ended all funding for UNRWA in 2018. "The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation," the State Department said at the time.
The schism between humanitarianism and politics is not as wide as most believe. Organizations like UNRWA walk a very thin line between assisting all in need and taking sides in conflicts. In response to the current story, UNRWA responded that it “is probably among the most scrutinized U.N. agencies in view of the nature of the conflict and complex and politicized environment it is working in.”
UNRWA was created in 1949 to deal with Palestinians who were displaced during the 1948 war at the creation of the state of Israel. It was established by General Assembly resolution 302 (IV), with the initial mandate to provide “direct relief and works programmes” to Palestine refugees, in order to “prevent conditions of starvation and distress… and to further conditions of peace and stability”. Today, it provides education, health care and social services to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Since 2018, with the U.S. withdrawal, it has been in a financial crisis.
While the ethics report deals only with the internal workings of the organization, there is no question that one cannot separate the political from the ethical here. Why are questions being raised now about ethical issues within UNRWA? With continuing tensions between Palestinian authorities and Israel and the Trump administration peace plan still incubating, the report is a cold shower for any hopes of ameliorating the lives of millions of displaced Palestinians. Generations of Palestinians have been stuck in camps, with UNRWA doing all that’s been possible to alleviate their suffering.
Is the report part of a larger strategy? By publicly criticizing UNRWA now, is it hoped that Palestinians will be forced to sign an agreement that will have no promise for the right to return? When the U.S. stopped funding UNRWA, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority suggested it was “using humanitarian aid to blackmail and pressure the Palestinian leadership to submit to the empty plan known as ‘the deal of the century.” Are the latest revelations part of that strategy?
Any serious abuses within UNRWA should be scrutinized and punished. That should go without saying. And organizations like UNRWA, given the sensitivity of their activities, should be especially careful about their actions. That also should go without saying. But the timing of the current revelations certainly come at an opportune moment for those who want to pressure the Palestinians into a peace deal. And what about all the refugees who depend on UNRWA for basic services? Are they once again being forgotten as they have been for 70 years?