UNRWA has ‘resolved its problems’, Swiss chief says

Head of UNRWA Philippe Lazzarini on a visit to Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, Jerusalem, June 02, 2021 Keystone / Atef Safadi

Calm is returning to UNRWA, the UN’s embattled Palestinian refugee agency, its new Swiss head says.

This content was published on July 2, 2021 - 14:31

Philippe Lazzarini, who took up the job on April 1 last year, told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ)External link that the institution had overcome its crisis of confidence.

In 2018 Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis described the agency as a hinderance to the peace process. Last year Switzerland temporarily suspended its payments, and the Swiss head of the agency, Pierre Krähenbühl, resigned over allegations of misconduct, which he denied.  

In November 2020 the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) crisis reached its highpoint, with the body unable to pay salaries. It was even on the verge of financial collapse.

Lazzarini said in an interview published on Friday that the UNRWA had managed to overcome the crisis “through measures to strengthen transparency in the decision-making process as well as control mechanisms”.

“Confidence has been restored. The member states are fully supporting us again.”

Lazzarini added that he had also enjoyed a “very good” meeting with minister Cassis. Switzerland’s goal for the Middle East is to create stability and give opportunities to those most in need, Lazzarini said. The UNRWA has the same goals and sees many points of convergence with Bern, he added.

The Swiss government announced in November 2020 that it would continue its support for UNRWA, earmarking CHF20 million ($22 million) a year to help humanitarian projects in the Middle East

Biden effect

Former UNRWA head Krähenbühl came under fire by the United States under former President Trump. The US froze its contributions in 2018.

Lazzarini said that relations had normalised with the arrival of Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden.

He added that if the UNRWA was disbanded without finding a political solution for the region, the suffering of Palestinian refugees would continue to rise.

Lazzarini’s predecessor Krähenbühl resigned as commissioner general of the UNRWA in November 2019 after allegations of mismanagement and abuse of power became public. Krähenbühl himself has always denied these allegations.

A UN enquiry was launched, but its results were not published. Krähenbühl was later exonerated of all charges, including fraud and misappropriation of funds. There is a petition calling on the Swiss government to press for the findings of the UN investigation to be made public.

Krähenbühl has since taken on a new role with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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