[On 6 November 2019, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Pierre Krähenbühl, unexpectedly resigned his position within hours of being placed on administrative leave by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Guterres had acted pursuant to the findings of an investigation into Krähenbühl’s conduct by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which had in turn been launched in response to a 2018 report into the activities of Krähenbühl and his inner circle by UNRWA’s own Ethics Office. In December 2020, a documentary produced by the Swiss television channel RTS reached a very different verdict. It concluded that Krähenbühl was guilty of only minor transgressions and had in fact been the victim of a concerted campaign by the United States and Israel, aided and abetted by senior UNRWA staff, to demolish the agency and its work on behalf of Palestinian refugees. Although RTS forcefully rejected accusations of bias and partisanship, a more recent three-part report by investigative reporter Luis Lema for the Swiss newspaper Le Temps confirmed many of the most serious charges against Krähenbühl and his closest associates, and dismissed allegations that his removal was the outcome of political machinations by forces hostile to Palestinian refugee rights. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Riccardo Bocco, a specialist on UNRWA and Palestinian refugee issues, and Lex Takkenberg, the former Chief of the UNRWA Ethics Office whose 2018 report ultimately led to Krähenbühl’s resignation, to help sift fact from fiction in this affair.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What were the circumstances that led to former Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl’s 2019 departure from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)?
Riccardo Bocco and Lex Takkenberg (RB & LT): As disclosed by Al Jazeera and other news outlets during the Summer of 2019, a confidential internal report submitted in December 2018 to the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) by UNRWA’s Ethics Office (headed at the time by Lex Takkenberg) accused the then top leadership of UNRWA, including Pierre Krähenbühl, of serious mismanagement and abuse of power. The report resulted in an official misconduct investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which took place during the course of 2019.
On 6 November 2019, the UN Spokesperson’s office informed journalists that the Secretary-General had received the investigation report with respect to Mr. Krähenbühl, and that its “preliminary findings exclude fraud or misappropriation of operational funds by the [former] Commissioner-General. There are, however, managerial issues that need to be addressed.” Furthermore, according to the same Note to Correspondents, the Secretary-General had decided to place Mr. Krähenbühl “on administrative leave while those issues are further clarified so that a final determination can be made, and an appropriate action can be taken.” (The reports with respect to other members of the former Commissioner-General’s inner circle were issued at a later date).
Mr. Krähenbühl resigned from his position within twenty-four hours of being informed of his placement on administrative leave and receipt of the investigation report. In doing so, he effectively aborted the disciplinary process, preventing any formal adverse findings against him, as well as further disclosure of the findings of the investigation. OIOS investigation reports are never published, first and foremost to protect “subjects” of investigations, in this case Mr. Krähenbühl.
In the leadup to Al Jazeera’s above-mentioned award-winning reporting on this matter, Mr. Krähenbühl had during the summer of 2019 removed a number of those implicated in the Ethics Office report from their positions, including his Deputy, Sandra Mitchell, and his Chief of Staff, Hakam Shahwan. The latter was "separated" on account of a “totally unacceptable” email in which he attempted to discredit Lex Takkenberg, the principal author of the 2018 UNRWA Ethics Office report.
In a legal challenge to one such termination, the UNRWA Dispute Tribunal, in a judgment rendered on 10 November 2020, held that Mr. Krähenbühl’s apparent attempt to bribe the staff member in question to leave the agency “quietly” constituted “a blatant violation of the UN’s core values”, and it, for this reason, referred him “to the [current] Commissioner-General for possible action to enforce accountability”. This referral effectively bars the former Commissioner-General from future employment with the UN system.
MR: The above notwithstanding, a documentary broadcast by the Temps Présent program of the Swiss television channel RTS in December 2020 provided a very different interpretation of these events, and concluded they were the product of political motivations. A subsequent article based on the documentary published by the E-zine Orient XXI similarly found that these events were driven by a larger political agenda.
RB & LT: Rather than providing a balanced account of the circumstances that led to Mr. Krähenbühl’s departure from UNRWA, the RTS Temps Présent documentary (in French) broadcast in December 2020, as well as the Orient XXI article published in January 2021 (in both French and English) based on the documentary, as well as a further documentary broadcast in January 2021 by German-speaking Swiss television, provided the former Commissioner-General with an unchallenged pulpit to portray himself as the victim of an alleged American-Israeli plot to liquidate UNRWA.
To support its arguments, the RTS documentary makes extensive reference to the frontal assault of the Trump Administration on UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, including the termination of most and then all US funding to the agency in 2018. The documentary portrays Mr. Krähenbühl at the forefront of defending UNRWA, implying that his subsequent departure was the result of pressures exerted by Israel and the US to oust him rather than concerns about mismanagement and abuse of authority. With respect to those concerns, the documentary suggests that Lex Takkenberg, the former Chief of the UNRWA Ethics Office had, deliberately or naively, allowed it to be used as an instrument of American-Israeli machinations.
In addition to relying primarily on the former Commissioner-General’s account of events, RTS and Orient XXI referred to the previously undisclosed “conclusions” of the aforementioned OIOS investigation report with respect to Mr. Krähenbühl. According to RTS’ and Orient XXI’s interpretation of those conclusions, to which both had access – and that we have since also been able to read (see below) – the report cleared Mr. Krähenbühl of “all the doubts hanging over him, apart from a few minor lapses.”
Yet this was not our impression of these same conclusions, nor does this seem to have been the view of the UN Secretary-General. Whilst the report excludes “fraud or misappropriation of operational funds”, as the above-mentioned Note to Correspondents had indeed communicated, the report found irregularities with respect to a number of senior appointments. Rather than a “few minor lapses”, these findings were sufficiently serious for the UN Secretary-General to subject Mr. Krähenbühl to disciplinary proceedings and place him on administrative leave pending the conclusion of this process, a measure typically taken in cases where there is prima facie evidence of serious wrongdoing. The investigation reports against other members of the former Commissioner-General’s inner circle contained adverse findings as well, for which, in addition to his own actions, he was also accountable.
MR: Yet both of you were interviewed by the makers of the RTS Temps Présent documentary, and also communicated with Orient XXI. How did they respond?
RB & LT: When we were approached by RTS at the beginning of 2020, the principal filmmaker, Anne-Frédérique Widmann, informed us that she was making a documentary about UNRWA. It would include reference to what she termed the “scandal” involving Mr. Krähenbühl and other members of UNRWA’s senior leadership, but this would only be one element among other aspects of the agency’s work and the context in which it operates. It is on this basis that both of us agreed to be interviewed. Due to COVID-19, the actual recording of interviews was postponed until the Autumn of 2020. We were both interviewed, for about two hours each, at our homes in Switzerland and France, respectively. While the interview with Riccardo Bocco was being conducted, he was shown a summary of the previously mentioned conclusions of the OIOS investigation report concerning Mr. Krähenbühl. This happened out of the blue, without any prior opportunity being afforded to read the document, nor was he subsequently given a copy of it.
Ahead of the documentary’s finalization, the principal filmmaker offered us the opportunity to hear the elements of our respective interviews that were used. The footage used was no more than a couple of minutes in respect of each of us in total, divided over several short segments. The interview excerpts were played back to us without the accompanying parts of the documentary, so we were unable to contextualize them within the larger framework of the documentary’s narrative. When we finally saw the documentary in full, it turned out that the filmmakers had very selectively used brief excerpts of our interviews, out of context, in order to serve their, and Mr. Krähenbühl’s, narrative.
We wrote to RTS detailing our reservations with respect to the documentary and how our input was used, requesting an opportunity to publicly – in a subsequent edition of Temps Présent – set the record straight. RTS dismissed our request and in essence, brushed aside our arguments, but invited us to view, at their offices and without the opportunity to make a copy, the conclusions of the OIOS investigation report, an offer we accepted.
In parallel, one of us (Lex Takkenberg) published a critique of the documentary and the article on his personal blog, in particular addressing the insinuation that he had failed in his responsibilities as Chief of UNRWA’s Ethics Office and, more seriously, that he had deliberately or naively allowed himself to be an instrument of American-Israeli “machinations.” In response to this blog post, Orient XXI removed its article from its website, republishing it several days later in slightly amended form, and it subsequently also agreed to publish a response on its website alongside the article. RTS reacted furiously to the blog post. It threatened legal action if the references to the documentary constituting a “whitewash” and representing a “cover-up” were not removed, and insisted on posting a response to the blog post. Both demands were accepted by the blog’s author.
MR: A subsequent series of articles on the “crisis” involving the former UNRWA leadership was published by the Swiss daily Le Temps. How did the account in these articles differ from those presented by RTS and Orient XXI?
RB & LT: A lengthy inquiry by Swiss investigative journalist Luis Lema for the Swiss daily Le Temps, based on interviews with some 15 (former) senior UNRWA staff, as well as with diplomats and officials from donor countries, confirmed much of what was included in the UNRWA Ethics Office report that had initially raised concerns about Mr. Krähenbühl and his inner circle. In Lema’s words, his inquiry revealed the workings of a “farm” where there was “a concentration of power, favoritism, and irregular decision-making.” Unlike the media reports by Swiss television and Orient XXI, Mr. Lema’s inquiry not only focuses on Mr. Krähenbühl’s role, but also sheds further light on abuses by his Deputy, his Chief of Staff, and his Special Adviser, for which the former Commissioner-General was ultimately accountable as well.
Lema’s findings are contained in two extensive articles published in May 2021 (the original French version of which can be accessed here and here), followed by a third article that same month based on an interview with Philippe Lazzarini, the current UNRWA Commissioner-General. (Unofficial English translation of these three articles can be accessed here, here, and here.)
The articles refer to Mr. Krähenbühl’s extensive travels in search of funding, “practically leaving the organizations to its own devices”, or, rather, to his American Deputy, Sandra Mitchell, and Chief of Staff, Hakam Shahwan, a Palestinian whom the Commissioner-General’s inner circle affectionately referred to as “our emir”. It details the fraudulent machinations to have Ms. Mitchell’s spouse appointed to a senior position with the agency, as well as the extensive concerns documented by the agency’s oversight department with respect to Mr. Shahwan: from paying suppliers in cash in violation of existing rules and regulations, “to reprisals against members of the oversight department, from irregular appointments to unjustified dismissals”. With respect to Krähenbühl’s Special Advisor, Maria Mohammedi, Lema reveals that she was separated from the agency after it had “recovered an amount of money due to it”, and provided the relevant details.
MR: US and Israeli hostility to UNRWA is an established fact. How do you respond to accusations that those responsible for Krähenbühl’s departure played a role, even if unwittingly, in confirming US-Israeli accusations against the agency and thus helped further their agenda to undermine Palestinian refugee rights?
RB & LT: Contrary to the narrative advanced by the filmmakers and Orient XXI’s reporter, there has been no “plot” to get Mr. Krähenbühl removed from his position. Pro-Israeli groups and individuals – in the US and elsewhere – have been attacking UNRWA and its top leadership for decades, and the Trump Administration’s decision to terminate US funding of UNRWA was only a further escalation of a financial crisis that has been with the agency almost since its inception.
Like many others, we had initially been impressed by Pierre Krähenbühl’s eloquence in advocating for Palestinian refugees and their rights. It is through its role as a confidential resource for staff and others, that the UNRWA Ethics Office gradually discovered that the former Commissioner-General and his inner circle were far from the blameless humanitarians they are portrayed as. The overwhelming concern motivating those who approached the Ethics Office was for the agency, which after the Trump Administration abruptly withdrew some USD 350 million in funding, was facing an unprecedented financial and political threat amounting to the most profound existential crisis in its history. The agency’s demise would have had devastating consequences for the Palestinian refugees who depend on UNRWA’s often life-saving services. Towards the end of 2018, the situation had become so bad that the Ethics Office consulted UNRWA’s independent Advisory Committee on Internal Oversight, and with its support, its former Chief subsequently reported the concerns that some 25 current and former directors and other senior UNRWA staff had confidentially shared with the office to the UN Secretary-General. This report was accompanied by a substantial body of evidence.
Because Mr. Krähenbühl resigned and left the UN, thereby effectively ending the disciplinary process against him, we will perhaps never know the full facts of the case. However, enough facts were established to force his resignation and ensure that he is unlikely to ever work for the United Nations again. In light of the confirmed facts, it is regrettable that RTS and Orient XXI denied their viewers and readers a more balanced appraisal of the affair.