UNRWA chief of staff leaves over ‘unacceptable email’

Hakam Shahwan ‘separated’ from UN’s Palestinian refugee agency after pseudonymous email was sent to Al Jazeera.

UNRWA sign
UNRWA was established to provide jobs and relief to Palestinian refugees [File: Nasser Nasser/AP]

New York City, US – The UN Palestinian refugee agency’s Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan has left the organisation over a “totally unacceptable” email, the agency has said.

The email, which was sent to Al Jazeera in late June, attempted to discredit the alleged author of an internal report written by UNRWA‘s ethics office.

Al Jazeera, which has obtained a copy of the report, received the pseudonymous email shortly after contacting UNRWA’s press office with inquiries about the ethics report, which describes alleged abuses of power by a number of individuals in UNRWA’s most senior management team, including Shahwan.

When Al Jazeera subsequently contacted the agency about the email, it said that Shahwan had left the agency as a “direct response”.

“UNRWA confirms that after receiving a copy of an anonymous email sent to you [Al Jazeera] addressing the alleged author of the report and related matters, the agency undertook an immediate review and subsequently, one of its senior staff members was separated as a direct response to that breach,” UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai said in statement, confirming later that the senior staff member was Shahwan.

“Such an email is totally unacceptable,” she added.

Shahwan, who took up the post of chief of staff in September 2017, said in a statement on social media on July 5 that he had “decided to resign”.

When contacted by Al Jazeera, he did not comment on specific allegations about his conduct but said his “resignation has no link whatsoever to any of the allegations in the report”.

Pseudonymous email

The author of the pseudonymous email claimed to be an “insider of the United Nations aware of the fact that you have been following an allegation related to UNRWA Commissioner General and others”.

It said that the UN agency was facing multiple political attempts to discredit it and that the ethics report was one example.

“Unfortunately I cannot reveal my name but I am a human being who follows a lot of cases of false accusations. UNRWA is going through series of attacks in the last 18 months and this comes as one of them. There is a clear intention to shut down the agency and ruin its reputation especially before the mandate renewal expected in November of this year,” the email read.

It further contained a number of unsubstantiated personal attacks on the alleged author of the confidential ethics report, in which members of UNRWA’s senior management were accused of abusing their power “for personal and political purposes as well as to pursue professional objectives in a detrimental way”.

Al Jazeera has confirmed the authenticity of the ethics report and understands that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has opened an investigation into allegations detailed in the report.

Decision-making ‘clique’

With input from dozens of current and former staff, the confidential report details alleged abuses of power among UNRWA’s senior management team, including accusations of “misconduct, nepotism and retaliation”.

Al Jazeera obtained a copy of the ethics office report from a source close to the agency, who said that UNRWA employees were concerned about a seeming lack of action after it was sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres‘s office in December.

The secretary-general’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, confirmed in late June that the report had been received.

“An investigation of the allegations contained in the report you mention is ongoing. Until this investigation is completed, the Secretary-General is not in a position to make any further comments on this matter,” he said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“As he has shown in the past, the Secretary-General is committed to acting swiftly upon receiving the full report.”

The report alleges that Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell – who resigned from her post in late July – former Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan and Senior Adviser to the Commissioner-General Maria Mohammedi make up an “inner circle at the very top” of UNRWA.

It claims that since 2015, members of this group have steadily consolidated power, leading to “management decline”, and that the situation escalated markedly from the start of 2018.

The alleged escalation coincided with the fallout from the decision by the United States, historically the agency’s largest individual donor, to cut its contributions from $360m to $60m for 2018 and then cut its donations to zero for 2019, causing a funding crisis in UNRWA.

The report claims that the 2018 crisis “served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the ‘clique’ and in particular, the [former] chief of staff; increased disregard for Agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm”.

Palestinian demonstrator holds UN flag during a rally against a U.S. decision to cut funding to UNRWA and in support of president Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank
The US cut its contributions to UNRWA from $360m to $60m for 2018, and then cut its donations to zero for 2019 [File: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

It alleges that these developments led to an “exodus of senior and other staff” and a work culture “characterised by low morale, fear of retaliation … distrust, secrecy, bullying, intimidation, and marginalization … and management that is highly dysfunctional, with a significant breakdown of the regular accountability structure”.

When presented with a number of the allegations reported in this story, Krahenbuhl “unreservedly” rejected the characterisation of UNRWA and its senior leadership set out in the extracts.

“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 in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“We certainly act when the situation requires. Having made it clear to all UNRWA managers and staff that I would not tolerate any interference with the investigation, when I received a copy of an anonymous email sent to Al Jazeera, I undertook personally to review the matter.

“The ensuing decision to separate the staff member responsible was not taken for any motive related to the investigation itself. It was taken because the content of the email you received from said staff member was clearly unacceptable,” Krahenbuhl said.

“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, rumors or fabrications,” he said.

Mohammedi told Al Jazeera she had “never seen” the ethics report and rejected the accusations about her conduct as “false” and “ill-intentioned”.

‘De facto leader’

The ethics report alleges that Shahwan was increasingly seen as the de facto leader of UNRWA, with the support of Krahenbuhl and Mitchell.

It describes allegations that Shahwan undercut the work of field directors and had also “effectively taken over UNRWA operations in Jerusalem”, circumventing field office chains of command and “bypassing established procurement and financial processes and decision making”.

The report also alleges that after an UNRWA driver made a complaint against co-workers including Shahwan, the chief of staff reacted by “defaming” the complainant and “using his influence to have the driver placed on administrative leave”.

Commissioner General for the UNRWA, Pierre Krahenbuhl
Krahenbuhl rejected the characterisation of UNRWA set out in the extracts [File: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu]

A former UNRWA director told Al Jazeera that “as soon as Hakam became chief of staff, he started moving everybody loyal to him into spots of power”.

The ethics report alleges two reported attempts in 2018 by Deputy Commissioner-General Mitchell, through Shahwan and other staff, to secure a more senior appointment for her spouse, Robert Langridge.
Mitchell’s spouse was appointed as a deputy director at UNRWA’s Jordan field office, effective October 2018.

The report claims that Langridge “was appointed through an irregular recruitment process and in violation of the UN and Agency prohibition of conflicted spousal appointment”.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Langridge said he categorically rejected the allegations.

“I particularly resent and reject the notion that I was not qualified for the position. This is neither factual nor correct,” he said.

Mitchell told Al Jazeera she “emphatically” rejected all the allegations.

“There is a pending investigation and as a UN staff member, I am restricted from commenting on specific allegations nor do I wish to interfere in that process as this would violate rules and obligations that I am bound by as a UN staff member”, she said in a statement.

UNRWA told Al Jazeera Mitchell decided to step down a few months earlier than scheduled for personal reasons, but as of now, she is still a staff member of the agency. 

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.

“Similarly, the United Nations Board of Auditors recognised the quality of the management and leadership of UNRWA. Finally, the 2018 annual report recently presented by UNRWA’s Department of Internal Oversight Services and Ethics Division – both independent bodies – to UNRWA’s Advisory Commission (host countries and largest donors) confirmed these positive assessments. These reports testify to the strength of this agency and are a matter of public record.”

Source: Al Jazeera