Belgium suspends UNRWA funding over leaked ethics report

Netherlands and Switzerland already put their funding on hold after report alleged mismanagement by agency's leadership.

    Belgium suspends UNRWA funding over leaked ethics report
    The Netherlands and Switzerland also decided earlier this week to suspend their contributions [File: Mohammed Ballas/The Associated Press]

    Belgium is suspending its contribution to the UN relief organisation for Palestinian refugees, becoming the third country to do so after a leaked report alleged mismanagement at the agency.

    The findings in the internal ethics report, first published by Al Jazeera on Monday, include allegations of misconduct, nepotism and discrimination by UNRWA's leadership.

    The report was sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in December and an investigation was launched.

    "If the claims are correct, then that is totally unacceptable," Minister of Development Alexander De Croo told Belgian news magazine Knack on Thursday.

    The Netherlands and Switzerland also decided earlier this week to suspend contributions for the time being.

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    According to De Croo, the decision was not made in consultation with the two countries.

    "In anticipation of the independent investigation, we are going to stop our further payments," De Croo told Knack, referring to an additional contribution of 5.35 million euros ($5.9m).

    Belgium already transferred its fixed contribution of 6.25 million euros ($6.9m) earlier this year.

    "We will take a critical look at the report ... It is not because you stand up for a good cause that you can do whatever you want," De Croo told Knack.

    Ongoing investigation

    In a statement to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai said the organisation "regrets" the decision by Switzerland and the Netherlands.

    "There is an ongoing investigation concerning UNRWA, and nothing that is being disseminated or discussed are findings of the investigation, only allegations and rumors."

    She appealed to the public to "wait for the actual conclusions of the investigation." In the meantime, she appealed to donors to "keep their funding in place" for the Palestinian refugees.

    In early July, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in a statement to Al Jazeera that he "unreservedly" rejected the report's characterisation of the agency and its senior leadership.

    "If the current investigation - once it is completed - were to present findings that require corrective measures or other management actions, I will not and we will not hesitate to take them," he said.

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    "Any suggestion, therefore, that we are not taking our responsibilities seriously is unfounded and highly misleading. We should be judged on the findings of the independent investigation not on allegations, rumours or fabrications," he added.

    The report describes "credible and corroborated" allegations of serious ethical abuses, including some involving Krahenbuhl.

    It said the accusations include senior management engaging in "misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".

    Vital services 

    UNRWA was set up after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands during the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel.

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

    But the ethics report paints a picture of a small number of senior leaders centralising power and influence while disregarding UN checks and balances.

    A former UNRWA director, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, read the ethics report and found it to be "accurate".

    Last year, US President Donald Trump's administration cut all funding to UNRWA and called for it to be dismantled and its services handed over to countries hosting the Palestinian refugees and NGOs.

    Krahenbuhl told Al Jazeera that recent external and UN reports demonstrated "positive assessments" of UNRWA's management.

    "A recent report by an external group of experts [MOPAN] has just shown satisfactory [and at times very satisfactory] results of UNRWA's management and impact - which is particularly important for us during these times of intense political and financial pressure on the agency," he said in a statement.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News