Palestine. Machinations against a Swiss diplomat from UNRWA

Pierre Krähenbühl’s career as the head of UNRWA, the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees, was brought to an abrupt halt in 2019. The reason: accusations which have turned out to be largely baseless. The context is challenging since UNRWA is in fact in the line of fire of the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government.
Additions have been made to this article for more precision, on 11 January 2021.

Pierre Krähenbühl speaking at the UNRWA’s 65th anniversary commemoration (2015)
UN Photo/Cia Pak

It may happen that information that is important to the reputation of certain persons remains confidential, causing significant harm to those persons. That is what happened in 2020 with an investigation commissioned by the UN Secretary General into serious allegations which had been levelled in 2018 against the Swiss Pierre Krähenbühl, then Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). He ended up resigning in November that year under pressure from his superiors.

An investigation by the Swiss TV station RTS has just brought to light the hitherto undisclosed conclusions of that enquiry, that we were able to read, which establish that the high Swiss official was cleared of all the doubts hanging over him, apart from a few minor lapses. It is an affair tainted with strong geopolitical overtones.

“Nepotism, discrimination, abuse of power…”

The first report dates from December 2018. An internal UNRWA document, it was supposed to remain confidential and to end up only on the desk of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who swiftly decided to launch an investigation into the embarrassing allegations it contained. But the allegations were leaked and seized on by the press six months later. Because they were a bombshell: in it, the author of the report, and head of UNRWA’s Ethics Office, the Dutchman Lex Takkenberg, denounces among other things “inappropriate sexual behaviour, nepotism, vindictive actions, discrimination and other abuses of authority committed for personal reasons, to suppress legitimate differences of opinion…”. The main accused: Pierre Krähenbühl, who is also charged with having an affair with a close colleague.

All around the world, the press takes up the cry: “UNRWA in crisis,” as many headlines put it. Urged by António Guterres to go on administrative leave pending the results of the enquiry he has set in motion, the Commissioner General of UNRWA felt let down and preferred to resign on 6 November 2019. End of story.

In the summer of 2020, the Swiss government received the report concluding the UN enquiry. It is a serious 129-page document in which former police officers dissected the emails and SMSs of the UN agency’s staff. But Pierre Krähenbühl’s management is not at all impugned. No corruption, no inappropriate love affairs. Of all the accusations, only three cases of recruitment within the agency remain to be clarified. So really, very little. Neither the Swiss foreign minister nor the UN Secretary General’s office publish the enquiry report clearing Pierre Krähenbühl of most of the allegations made against him. Admittedly, this type of report is not intended for public dissemination, but since a man’s honour was at stake and the accusations —which should remain confidential —which he was facing had been published, it would have been correct to do the same with the conclusions of the official investigation.

Enter Xavier Nicol and Anne-Frédérique Widmannn, two RTS journalists. Their report was broadcast in Switzerland on 17 December on the “Temps présent” programme. Their documentary, Israel-Palestine: A Swiss caught in the storm, gives free rein to Pierre Krähenbühl, among others.

Who wants UNRWA’s scalp?

The geopolitical context of this case could evoke a cabal. Against Pierre Krähenbühl? Of course, but above all, through him, against UNRWA whose hide is wanted by some. The geopolitical context of the affair in fact explains many things. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has long made it clear that it wants to get rid of the Palestinian refugee agency. For it, UNRWA embodies a cause, the right of the refugees to return, which it rejects. And the agency remains as a constant reminder of a past best forgotten: the departure, in most cases forced, and dispossession of more than 700,000 Palestinian inhabitants in 1948 during the events leading to the creation of Israel. Officially, Israel accuses the agency willy-nilly of fostering the “illusion” of a refugee return to what became Israel, of harbouring a number of Hamas militants in its ranks, and of providing an education which breeds hatred of Israel and promotes armed struggle and even terrorism, etc.

The arrival of Donald Trump to the US presidency in January 2017 saw the Israeli government begin basking in an unprecedented degree of American political support, on all issues, including that of the Palestinian refugees. The American millionaire lost no time in asking his son-in-law Jared Kushner, known for his links with the Israeli extreme right, to concoct a “peace plan” to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict finally.

What would he propose for the refugees? An email from 11 January 2018 to several administration officials, including the White House’s special Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, was revealed on 3 August 2020 by the site foreignpolicy.com, and at least had the merit of clarity: “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” he wrote. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace. Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are.… Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

The tone speaks for itself. The US government moved into action, drastically cutting its contribution to UNRWA in 2018 from $364m to $65m, and even that would be eliminated the following year. Given UNRWA’s overall budget of over $850m, such a harsh reduction of US participation had a dramatic effect on the functions of the agency, which employs 30,000 Palestinians serving 5.5m refugees across the Middle East, from Syria to Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. So it was already clear what the “peace plan”, launched to great fanfare in Washington on 28 January 2020, had in mind for UNRWA: its elimination, pure and simple. QED.

A marked man

Was Pierre Krähenbühl an obstacle on the path of the Americans and Israelis as they charted the demise of the specialist UN agency? The documentary does not go that far. It features the Genevan diplomat alone at the front, facing the hostile manoeuvres of the powerful American-Israeli duo. One thing is clear at any rate: in 2018, the Swiss official intensified his fund-raising trips, initiatives and meetings to replenish the agency’s coffers. His success was as telling as it was surprising: 43 countries agreed to increase their funding that year to make up the deficit. Beyond that, Pierre Krähenbühl did not hesitate to defend the agency tooth and nail, including at the UN Security Council, where live from Gaza he contradicted the American and Israeli speakers. Clearly, the Swiss diplomat had made more than just friends since he took over UNRWA on 1 April 2014 after leaving the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Back in his own country, he became aware from 2018 on that one of the characters involved in the drama, Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, was lining up against his agency. Cassis was listed in the Swiss parliament as a member of the Friends of Israel group. He took up his federal functions in Bern in November 2017. Returning from a Middle East trip in the spring of 2018 during which he had met Pierre Krähenbühl in Amman, Ignazio Cassis shared his impressions with some journalists on the plane home.

“For me, the question is: Is UNRWA part of the solution, or part of the problem?” He outlined his thinking: “As long as the Palestinians are living in refugee camps, they want to return to their homeland. By supporting UNRWA, we are keeping the conflict alive. That’s not logical, because everybody in fact wants to end the conflict.”

His statement angered the former Swiss diplomat Yves Besson, himself once director of UNRWA. “Today, UNRWA is the only remaining sign of international interest in the fate of the Palestinians and their refugees,” he told the site Swissinfo.ch. “Moreover there’s nothing neutral about such a statement, since that line has been the mantra of Israel and the US.”

Accusations based on “concerns”

The language adopted by the Swiss minister did indeed seem to be taken directly from the official Israeli and American playbooks. So it was quite logical that, when the internal UNRWA report put the agency’s chief in the hot seat in 2019, Ignazio Cassis did not lift a finger to help him; quite the reverse, he ordered the suspension of Swiss aid to UNRWA. The report, moreover, contained no evidence against the Swiss diplomat, it simply peddled a number of accusations gleaned from inside the agency. Lex Takkenberg1, who signed the original text which manifestly failed survive scrutiny by the enquiry ordered by António Guterres, admitted in Xavier Nicol and Anne-Frédérique’s documentary that the allegations he had reported were based mainly on conversations with over 20 UNRWA members who had raised “concerns”.

Today, Pierre Krähenbühl has moved on, not without bitterness. “It would have been simple enough for the US and Switzerland to acknowledge the emptiness of the report [accusing me] and to recognize what we have been put through,” he says at the end of the documentary. The crushing silence of the Swiss and UN authorities, who refused to talk to Swiss journalists and who did not want to publish the conclusions of the UN enquiry exonerating Pierre Krähenbühl, did them no credit.

As for UNRWA, meanwhile under another Swiss, Philippe Lazzarini, it continues to struggle with intractable budgetary problems, as witnessed by its inability to pay its staff’s salaries for November 2020 and its doubts for December. Will the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House on 20 January produce a change in the US position on the humanitarian agency? The answer, vital for the agency’s survival, will perhaps not be long in coming.

1After the publication of the first version of this article on 8 January 2021, Lex Takkenberg sent us an argument to contest certain points, which he reproduced on his blog. His main argument is that the RTS documentary (and our article) deliberately ignored a decision incriminating Pierre Krähenbühl handed down by an UNRWA administrative tribunal on 10 November 2020, well before the documentary was broadcast. The tribunal accuses Mr Krähenbühl, which he disputes, of having tried to bribe a UNRWA staff member, which is “contrary to the fundamental values of the UN”. However, apart from the fact that this case was not included in Lex Takkenberg’s initial accusations, let alone in the UN investigation report on those accusations, it should be noted that the latter proceedings resulted in the Swiss diplomat being accused of very serious offences without having seen fit to hear him elaborate on his version of the facts. It rejects entirely the conclusions as formulated against him.