Troubled UN agency for Palestinians names new deputy head

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The UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Thursday announced the appointment of an acting deputy chief, after a report on alleged ethical abuses by top management prompted donors to freeze funds.

“Christian Saunders has been appointed as acting Deputy Commissioner-General (DCG), pending the recruitment of a full replacement to the outgoing DCG Sandra Mitchell,” the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said in a statement.

The internal ethics probe accused Mitchell of manipulating the system to find a well-paid job for her husband at the agency last year as it suffered through a funding crisis.

Her management style is alleged to have included bullying, cutting those she disliked out of decision-making and avoiding checks and balances, it says.

She quit last week citing “personal reasons”.

Thursday’s UNRWA statement made no mention of the internal report, seen by AFP, which describes “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, including some involving UNRWA’s top official, Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl.

The confidential survey says the allegations include senior management engaging 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”.

Switzerland said on Tuesday it was suspending funding to the agency pending the findings of UN investigators into the allegations.

The Netherlands, one of the agency’s main European donors, followed suit the following day.

UNRWA was set up in the years after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands during the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel.

It provides vital schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

In 2018, the United States suspended and later cut all funding for UNRWA, causing a financial crisis that threatened to see its schools and hospitals closed.

Its UN mandate is set to be debated later this year.

US President Donald Trump’s administration, along with Israel, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The agency disputes that and says the services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians.

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