Head of UN agency for Palestinian refugees leaves office temporarily

The Swiss Pierre Krähenbühl, implicated in an internal investigation for abuse of power, withdrew from office until the end of the investigation.

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Pierre Krahenbuhl, general commissioner of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), Damascus, March 2015. OMAR SANADIKI / Reuters

Switzerland's Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the UN refugee agency Unrwa, has been removed from office for the first time, the agency said Wednesday (November 9th). . The UN Secretary-General has appointed interim replacement Christian Saunders.

The results of the survey "Have revealed management problems that specifically concern the Commissioner General"says the agency. This one "Withdrew (from Unrwa) until the end" of the investigation.

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At the end of July, a report from the Unrwa Ethics Department sent to the UN Secretary-General reported mismanagement and abuse of power by a small group of senior officials – mostly expatriates – who circumvented the UN's control mechanisms.

Romantic relationship with her senior advisor

AFP had obtained a copy of the report which describes "Credible and corroborated" serious ethical abuses by senior executives, including the agency's general commissioner, Switzerland's Pierre Krähenbühl. Among the charges are those "Inappropriate sexual acts, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, (committed) for personal ends, to suppress legitimate differences of opinion", according to the report.

Pierre Krähenbühl himself has had a relationship with his senior advisor, appointed in 2015, after a recruitment process "Extremely fast", says the document. This advisor would have followed the general commissioner in business class during his travels abroad.

A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Agence France-Presse that he was "Grateful for all that he (Pierre Krähenbühl) did to keep the organization going during a difficult time, but that the decision to withdraw now was welcome".

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700,000 Palestinian refugees

Founded in 1949, Unrwa runs schools and provides life-saving assistance to millions of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. It employs 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians. More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands between April and August 1948, when Israel was created, according to the UN. These people, along with their descendants, have refugee status.

Israel and the United States oppose the Palestinians' ability to transfer refugee status to their children, thereby wishing to reduce the number of people receiving Unrwa aid, which Palestinians denounce as a violation of their rights.

The unprecedented financial difficulties of the UN agency had provoked, Sunday, an ephemeral strike of some 7,000 of its employees who demanded wage increases. They were finally revalued, ending the strike. The UN agency is facing an unprecedented financial crisis since the US ended in 2018 its annual financial assistance of 300 million dollars (270 million euros). In August, Switzerland and the Netherlands had also suspended their contributions to Unrwa, pending the results of the internal investigation.

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