The United Nations’ reputation as a fair broker in the Middle East has been rocked by a series of allegations that its officials in Palestine and Yemen are guilty of graft, sexual misconduct and other misdeeds.
UN spokesman Stephan Dujarric told InsideOver that the world body has “absolutely zero tolerance for any corruption”, but it remains unclear whether UN probes into the allegations, which are ongoing, will satisfy critics.
Already, the Netherlands and Switzerland have suspended funding to the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). In war-ravaged Yemen, a fragile peace process was almost derailed in a recent spat between the UN and local officials.
The corruption allegations — and their fallout — highlight how the UN struggles to keep tabs on funding dollars and even its own officials, who often fly solo in fast-moving hotspots where cash is easy to hide.
The scandal in UNRWA, which provides services to some 5 million Palestinian refugees, is particularly damaging, as it comes as US President Donald Trump’s administration says the agency should be shuttered.
According to a report by the UN’s internal watchdog, UNRWA’s top management, including its commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl, is being probes over allegations of abuses of power.
According to the confidential report, an “inner circle” of Krahenbuhl and some top aides have “engaged in sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other” misdeeds.
Krahenbuhl struck up a relationship with senior adviser Maria Mohammedi in 2014 that was “beyond the professional” and yielded a “toxic environment” and “frequent embarrassment” in the workplace, the report says.
Investigators found that Mohammedi was hired in an “extreme fast-track” process and that she accompanied Krahenbuhl on official trips, using waivers so she could fly beside him in business class.
Krahenbuhl’s deputy, Sandra Mitchell of the US, resigned in July and denied all allegations of impropriety. This month, Christian Saunders of Britain was appointed to replace her as the agency’s acting deputy commissioner general.
Krahenbuhl has rejected the allegations in the report and insisted that UNRWA is run well.
Meanwhile, UN officials are facing more graft claims in Yemen, where they are tasked with tackling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis after five years of war has pushed millions to the brink of famine.
There, internal UN investigators are probing claims that more than a dozen staffers worked with combatants on all sides to pocket cash from the aid money swishing around the country, according to an Associated Press report.
Internal auditors from the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) are probing whether unqualified people landed high-paying jobs, dodgy contracts were approved, millions of dollars landed in staffers’ bank accounts, and tons of aid supplies went missing.
The WHO probe began in November, amid allegations of dodgy accounting by Nevio Zagaria, 20, an Italian doctor, who ran the agency’s Sanaa office between 2016-2018, according to the AP report.
As well as being probed for financial mismanagement, Zagaria reportedly also hired former colleagues in senior positions, including a Filipino university student who was tasked with looking after Zagaria’s dog, it is claimed.
In a statement, a WHO spokesperson said investigations into wrongdoing were ongoing, but detailed an overhaul of its operations in Yemen after discovering that its administration there was “unsatisfactory”.
“A new country director was appointed in 2018. We have also deployed more staff with extensive experience in management, emergency response and administration to strengthen WHO’s response on the ground,” the spokesperson said.
“The country office structure has been updated with clear reporting lines and functions, to increase transparency and accountability, and to reduce operational and management inefficiencies.”
The spokesperson added that probing the allegations was made harder by the “complexities of the operational environment” in Yemen, where a spiralling conflict is largely viewed as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Still, a second Yemen probe by the UN agency for children, Unicef, is reportedly assessing whether a staffer let a Houthi rebel leader travel in UN vehicles so he could evade airstrikes by his enemies in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
Officials in Yemen’s UN-backed government have criticised the world body for cooperating with Houthi rebels, while an online campaign asks the UN to come clean about the missing millions in aid funding for Yemen.
As these claims were being probed, the UN’s peace envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, rowed with officials in the government of Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi over his purported support for the Houthis.
That spat was resolved in June after an intervention from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, but the UN’s peace plan for Yemen remains unimplemented in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.
Like the probe into UNRWA, the allegations against WHO and Unicef in Yemen are damaging for the UN, which can struggle to appear impartial in hotly-contested disputes.
It is not likely, in either scenario, that the world body will have to pull the plug on operations. But humanitarian work for Yemenis and Palestinians occur in two of the Middle East’s most divisive conflicts.
In Yemen, corruption claims make it harder for the UN to stay above the fray in brokering a peace involving the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and others as well as myriad local forces.
The UNRWA investigation comes as world powers are set to discuss whether to renew the agency’s mandate later this year. The US was already pushing for UNRWA to be shuttered, a damaging conclusion to its probe could well tip the agency over the edge.