Do not punish Palestinian refugees for UNRWA dysfunction
Earlier this week, an internal ethics report about the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees was leaked to both Al Jazeera and the AFP news agency. The report details serious abuses of authority within the agency's senior management team, based on testimonials from former and current staff as well as a variety of other supporting documents.
Most importantly it accuses Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl and a couple of others from his inner circle of having "engaged in misconduct, nepotism, [and] retaliation". The report also notes that the situation worsened in 2018, following a decision by the United States, UNRWA's largest donor, to cut its funding of the agency. This allowed the senior management to justify "an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the 'clique' … increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm; and continued excessive travel of the commissioner-general".
Many Palestinians were not particularly surprised by the content of the leaked report. Over the years, we have heard many anecdotes about the highly problematic culture of entitlement and abuse perpetuated by well-paid foreign staff at UNRWA and other UN agencies.
Apart from nepotism and abuse of power, there are major issues with the distribution of limited financial resources assigned to these bodies. In times of austerity, for example, support programmes are usually cut before the salaries of senior and foreign staff.
High-level employees have also been known to engage in a variety of hypocritical actions, including renting houses stolen from Palestinian refugees in 1948 in Jerusalem (particularly in its popular neighbourhood Musrara) and allowing the UN duty free shop to sell products from illegal Israeli settlements, such as Israeli wine produced in the occupied Golan Heights.
This type of misconduct, however, is not unique to UNRWA and has been exposed in other UN agencies and large humanitarian organisations. The revelations of the report are indeed reprehensible and those responsible should not go unpunished. But that does not mean that UNRWA should be defunded or shut down.
UNRWA as a separate agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees has a special status and function. It was established in 1949 in order to provide relief services for Palestinians expelled from their homeland following the creation of the Israeli state. It now operates in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and provides some 5 million Palestinians with primary and secondary education, health services as well as various camp infrastructure projects. It also employs about 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.
UNRWA's mandate to provide for the refugees is repeatedly renewed pending the implementation of UN Resolution 194 which affirms the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands and to receive just compensation.
For so many the agency is not only an important lifeline, but an official body which safeguards the Palestinian right of return from all the powers that want to do away with it.