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July 30, 2019 11:18 am

Swiss Funding Freeze in Wake of UNRWA Corruption Allegations Piles On Palestinian Refugee Agency’s Woes

avatar by Ben Cohen

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl speaks during a news conference at a UN-run school in Gaza City in January 2018. Photo: Reuters / Suhaib Salem.

Switzerland confirmed on Tuesday that it was temporarily freezing funding for UNRWA — the United Nations agency dedicated solely to Palestinian refugees and their descendants — following the emergence of an internal report that accused the agency’s top management of systematic corruption and abuse.

Swiss public broadcaster SRF reported that the country’s Foreign Ministry decided to suspend funds following a phone consultation between leading officials and Pierre Krähenbühl — a Swiss national who serves as UNRWA’s director-general, and whose own actions were at the center of the reports’ criticisms.

The report included accusations against UNRWA’s management of “nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.” Krähenbühl was personally accused of appointing  a woman with whom he was romantically involved as an adviser. Despite facing a deficit of more than $200 million in UNRWA’s current budget, the report charged that the pair had frequently traveled together on business class flights around the world.

SRF said that the Swiss Foreign Ministry was now “in contact with other donors” about the scandal, adding that this would “increase pressure on UNRWA.” The broadcaster said it had been told that “further action” would be taken once a new UN internal probe into UNRWA, following on from the original report, was concluded.

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The head of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the lower house of the Swiss parliament voiced her support for the foreign ministry’s move.

In a separate interview with SRF, Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter confessed that the scandal had left her “very surprised, especially as UNRWA is led by a Swiss citizen, Pierre Krähenbühl.”

She continued: “It is a pity that UNRWA is again producing negative headlines. Fundamental decisions about its future need to be made.”

Official Swiss reservations about both UNRWA’s mission and its management pre-dated the internal report into the agency, Schneider-Schneiter noted. She pointed out that in May 2018, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis had openly criticized UNRWA’s mandate — which imposes continuing refugee status on the five million descendants of the original Arab refugees of 1948, preventing their integration into host countries — for perpetuating the Palestinian conflict with Israel.

“UNRWA has become part of the problem,” Cassis said in the wake of a visit to Jordan. “It provides the ammunition to continue the conflict. For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they want to return to their homeland.”

Nevertheless, Switzerland has faithfully made annual payments to UNRWA, with a contribution of almost $30 million in 2018 alone. Ironically, a plea from Krähenbühl for emergency funding this past January saw him single out Switzerland for praise for its “robust” and “generous” contributions. That plea in turn was the outcome of the September 2018 decision by the US government, which previously provided 30 percent of UNRWA’s annual budget of $1.2 billion, to end all funding to the agency.

A State Department statement at the time emphasized that the US would  “no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.” The core of UNRWA’s problem, the statement argued, was that its mandate had led to an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”

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