Bosses at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees ‘engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism and discrimination’, a confidential report by the body’s ethics office claimed.
The shocking new document alleged top management including Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl at the UN Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, indulged in ‘abuses of authority’.
Married Krahenbuhl is accused of hiring his girlfriend, Maria Mohammedi who was appointed in 2015, as a senior adviser in an ‘an extreme fast-track’ process so he could fly her around the world in business class.
According to the ethics report, Krahenbuhl, who was appointed to lead UNRWA on in March 2014, started a relationship with Mohammedi late that year that ‘went beyond the professional’, created ‘a toxic environment’, and caused ‘frequent embarrassment’.
His deputy Sandra Mitchell is also accused of nepotism by bypassing normal decision-making to promote her husband Robert Langridge to become a deputy director at UNRWA’s Jordan field office from October 2018.
Married Pierre Krahenbuh, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, is accused of flying his girlfriend around the world business class
The report claims that Langridge ‘was appointed through an irregular recruitment process and in violation of the UN and Agency prohibition of conflicted spousal appointment’.
The ethics office said the concerns in the 10-page document represents ‘an extremely grave and significant reputational, operational and security risk to the agency’.
It was also recommended that ‘their immediate removal should be carefully considered’.
UNRWA is the largest agency of the United Nations with over 30,000 staff.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said an investigation of the allegations is ongoing and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres would not comment until it is completed.
He said Krahenbuhl ‘has been doing excellent work, but we are saying that without prejudice to the result of this investigation’.
But agency employees were concerned about a seeming lack of action after the report was sent to Guterres’s office in December last year, according to Al Jazeera.
The report alleges these acts were carried out ‘for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives, jeopardising the credibility and interests of the agency’.
It also claims the funding crisis ‘has served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the ”clique”’ that no longer feared scrutiny.
In particular the states that the ‘[former] chief of staff; increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm; and continued excessive travel of the commissioner-general’.
A concentration of power began in 2015 and escalated after the US cut funding for UNRWA from $360 million to just $60 million in 2018. This year, the agency received nothing from the Trump administration.
Krahenbuhl has said 42 countries and institutions increased their contributions last year so the agency could finance its $1.2 million budget – and UNRWA has kept the same $1.2 billion budget this year.
He called donor pledges of $113 million in late June an encouraging step, but short of alleviating a ‘precarious’ funding situation to help 5 million Palestinian refugees this year.
The cumulative effects of these developments, it claimed, have been an exodus of staff and ‘an organisational culture characterised by low morale, fear of retaliation – including through non-renewal of contracts – distrust, bullying, intimidation, and marginalisation’.
The report concluded that ‘there is overwhelming prima facie evidence’ the interconnected behaviour of the four inner circle members amounts to ‘abuse of authority’.
One senior official named in the report has left the organisation due to ‘inappropriate behaviour’ linked to the investigation, UNRWA said, while another has resigned for what the agency called ‘personal reasons’.
Citing information from some 25 current and past UNRWA directors and staff, the report said an ‘inner circle’ comprising Krahenbuhl, his deputy Sandra Mitchell, Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan and senior adviser Maria Mohammedi have bypassed normal decision-making processes and sidelined field and programme directors and other senior staff.
According to the ethics report, 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 marginalised’ 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 travelled 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 to 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’s spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Mohammedi was quoted by Al Jazeera as rejecting accusations about her conduct as ‘false’ and ‘ill-intentioned’.
Mitchell rejected all the allegations made in the report, including that she abused her power to secure an appointment for her spouse, and resigned in late July. According to Al Jazeera said Shahwan left in early July.
Krahenbuhl ‘unreservedly’ rejected the characterisation of UNRWA and its senior leadership and said he was cooperating with the investigation and would implement any ‘corrective measures or other management actions’ it may recommend, Al Jazeera reported.