The Crisis at UNRWA Cries Out for Independent Oversight


August 1, 2019—
According to news reports, another United Nations entity is engulfed in scandal. The internal ethics office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has found "credible and corroborated" evidence that the senior management of UNRWA 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 ethics report asserts that the alleged conduct of UNRWA's senior leaders—Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell, Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan, and Senior Adviser to the Commissioner-General Maria Mohammedi—presents "an enormous risk to the reputation of the UN" and "their immediate removal should be carefully considered."

The ethics report was leaked to the media this week. But it was completed and delivered to the UN Secretary-General in December 2018. That was eight months ago. Mitchell and Shahwan have since left the agency of their own accord. Both Krahenbuhl and Mohammedi remain in their posts. 

The Secretary-General has ignored the ethics report's recommendation that Krahenbuhl and Mohammedi be removed with "immediate" effect. Instead, the UN has responded to the report by ordering yet another internal investigation, this time by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which is ongoing. In effect, the UN has taken no substantive action to address the crisis at UNRWA.

The Netherlands and Switzerland have responded to the revelations by suspending funding to UNRWA. The United Kingdom is considering such a step. It should go without saying that the work of UNRWA is too important to be sacrificed to the UN’s willingness to allow the crisis to worsen. 

We are reminded of the scandal at UNAIDS. A year ago last April, the UN announced that it was reopening the botched internal investigation into sexual assault and harassment allegations lodged against Luiz Loures, a former UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director. The same OIOS was assigned to the task. Nothing has been heard from the UN since.

Secretary-General Guterres has a carefully-orchestrated habit of ordering internal investigations—the UN investigates the UN in a clear conflict of interest—that go on interminably until the scandal fades from the headlines and the original allegations are forgotten. It’s a habit that needs to be broken, lest the reputation of the United Nations be further damaged.

We have a solution: a Temporary Independent Oversight Panel.

In the case of UNRWA, and all other such cases, the Code Blue Campaign calls upon UN Member States to temporarily impanel impartial, independent experts—not employees—to oversee the UN’s response to allegations of sexual abuse and a culture of misconduct across all parts of the UN system. The panel would monitor every step taken in real time, from receipt of each claim, through fact-finding and investigation, to the final outcome. A “Temporary Independent Oversight Panel,” reporting directly to Member States, could be well placed to make expert recommendations. And the recommendations must be seen as binding.

The UNRWA case affirms for us the necessity of just such an external solution. As things now stand, “zero tolerance” within the UN has become a specious concept.


Peter Duffy:, Tel: +1-646-924-1710