Vivian Bercovici: Why hasn’t this latest scandal persuaded Canada to cut off the UNRWA?

Vivian Bercovici: Why hasn’t this latest scandal persuaded Canada to cut off the UNRWA?

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August 5, 2019

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As a human rights organization, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees is required to operate on an ethical basis. It doesn’t

During my tenure as Canadian ambassador to Israel, I had occasion to meet with Pierre Krähenbühl, then commissioner of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), to discuss issues of interest to Canada. He made no secret of his distaste for the policies of the Stephen Harper government, which had ended Canadian financial support for UNRWA years earlier. And it was no secret that Harper did so because of his firm and informed view that UNRWA was a highly problematic NGO.

In theory, UNRWA exists to provide support to Palestinian refugees: food, shelter, education, health care. The organization has become a highly politicized vehicle that promotes the dream nurtured among Palestinians to destroy Israel and return to their ancestral homes.

Israel, and many observers around the world, see UNRWA instead a self-sustaining bureaucratic fiefdom, serving the whims of its executives first, at best, and outright hostile to Israel (and sympathetic to its terrorist attackers) at worst.

And now this.

A UN report was leaked several days ago, dropping bombshell allegations: that Krähenbühl’s leadership fostered corruption, nepotism, financial and operational irregularities. And there’s sizzle: reports that Krähenbühl’s alleged mistress, one Maria Mohammedi, was fast-tracked very early on in his tenure into a senior position created for her which, coincidentally, required that she jet about with her boss, first class, on the UNRWA dime.

The organization is widely known to be operating with near total immunity, answerable to virtually no one

As an international human rights organization, UNRWA is required to operate on a non-political and, of course, ethical basis. It doesn’t. Anti-Semitism is spewed in educational curriculum in UNRWA schools, and even the social media accounts of staff. The organization is widely known to be operating with near total immunity, answerable to virtually no one.

The fact that the UN is peeking inside the UNRWA kimono, then, is most interesting, because that ossified institution would be loath to take on UNRWA without encouragement from regional powers. The UN report was leaked to AFP and Al Jazeera, two news outlets that tend to be loyal foot-soldiers for the Palestinian cause and reliably hostile to Israel. For the UN — which has always looked the other way when it came to UNRWA accountability and operations — to spearhead such an attack suggests strongly that Krähenbühl ruffled some mighty powerful feathers in the Middle East, possibly linked to his apparently open dalliance with Mohammedi. Some very powerful people in the region want him out.

When initially restoring funding to UNRWA, then-minister of International Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, made special mention of the fact that part of Canada’s funding would be allocated to “social media training.” Good god. What was needed was not training but for someone to hold Krähenbühl, and UNRWA generally, accountable. Among their ongoing and flagrant abuses is encouragement of anti-Semitic incitement on social and other media accounts of UNRWA staff who moonlight as Hamas supporters. Bibeau and her cabinet colleagues were clearly well aware of UNRWA’s inappropriate conduct and chose to overlook it. Bibeau also confirmed that Canadian funds would be applied specifically to review UNRWA school curriculum to ensure it was appropriate. It is highly doubtful that ever occurred. Nevertheless, the sluice of largesse was opened without delay and has remained so, releasing a financial gusher to UNRWA. Since November 2016, this country has donated more than $100 million.

Bibeau, apparently briefed on the well-documented failings of UNRWA and possible backlash to the government’s decision, assured Canadians that their donations would be overseen by “independent” authorities of some sort, never specifying who, what or how. All of which raises eyebrows, since it is very well understood in the foreign policy and NGO community — and, in fact, proudly confirmed by UNRWA — that the agency does not abide third-party oversight of its operations or spending, relying instead on an internal oversight board and biannual financial audits by the UN. In response to repeated requests to provide updates on what oversight Canada was insisting on in November 2016, Global Affairs provided me with non-responsive, irrelevant platitudes.

Thing is, Krähenbühl’s conduct aside, there are very significant concerns among governments of all political stripes with chronic and well-documented UNRWA ethical and financial abuses; not to mention the organization’s dissemination of virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel curricula in the schools under its administration.

Canada has, it seems, chosen to ignore these widespread concerns and pretend that everything is peachy. And the only fathomable explanation is that the current leadership in Ottawa so covets a rotating seat on the UN Security Council that it will do anything to secure it, including throwing money at a corrupt organization that is utterly committed to promoting anti-Semitism and colludes with Hamas and other unsavoury groups.

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As a result of the latest intrigue and peccadilloes of Krähenbühl, Switzerland and the Netherlands announced this week that they were freezing any further funding of UNRWA until this scandal is resolved. The U.K., the fourth-largest funder of UNRWA, is reportedly considering similar measures. Yet Canada, in a startlingly detached moment, had a Global Affairs “official” tell the nation on Wednesday that we are, officially, “concerned.”

To be clear: there is no meaningful oversight of UNRWA by any independent third party. It is difficult to conceive of an organization with less oversight than UNRWA. In fact, Trudeau squandered an important opportunity when he decided to resume funding of the organization. He had all the leverage to condition Canada’s financial support on a significant overhaul of the agency, a necessity which is widely acknowledged in the backrooms of the global diplomatic community and would have had widespread support. UNRWA was desperate for renewed Canadian funding, and with a coalition of like-minded nations, such an initiative would have certainly succeeded.

But, instead, we just threw more money at the problem, asserting, repeatedly, that we were holding UNRWA to account with our “special” oversight measures. All we have done is to compound the apparently intractable issues that UNRWA is intended to alleviate and address.

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