The sham investigation of Unrwa

This picture shows the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). (Photo by AFP) (AFP)
This picture shows the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). (Photo by AFP) (AFP)

Summary

It’s likely to whitewash the organization’s terrorist ties and could even force the offenders’ rehiring.

The United Nations is meant to help keep international peace, not undermine it. Yet last month the Journal reported that Israeli intelligence revealed that at least 12 employees of the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency were connected to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres then announced that the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS, would investigate the alleged ties. After spending four years as an investigator in that office, I can confidently say that its investigation will amount to nothing.

The OIOS’s mandate is to investigate breaches of staff regulations and rules, but the heaviest disciplinary measure the U.N. can impose on a staff member is dismissal. In this case that’s already happened. Of the 12 Unrwa staff alleged to have participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault, two have reportedly died and 10 have been dismissed. What, then, does the secretary-general hope to achieve?

Mr. Guterres has said that any Unrwa employees involved will “be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution." That’s commendable but meaningless. The U.N. doesn’t have prosecutorial authority or the ability to extradite people from one country to another, meaning any legal accountability would have to come from national authorities. Whatever the U.N. says, Hamas certainly wouldn’t send them from Gaza to sit for criminal trial in Israel.

That isn’t the only fly in the U.N. ointment. The only information connecting these Unrwa employees with criminal activity has come from the Israelis, in part from sensitive signals intelligence and interrogations of captured Hamas fighters. Without disclosing the intel’s primary source, such information won’t meet any legal standard of proof. The OIOS is thus left sitting in the middle of a mess that might have been mitigated had Unrwa suspended the implicated staff members without pay. Instead, the U.N. appears to have panicked—not because Unrwa staff were allegedly involved in terrorism but because member states started to withdraw their financial support.

The technical reality is that Unrwa fired employees without due process. As reported by the Guardian, Unrwa chief Philippe Lazzarini described their firing as “reverse due process," adding: “My judgment, based on this going public, true or untrue, was I need to take the swiftest and boldest decision to show that as an agency we take this allegation seriously." If the OIOS can’t confirm or produce a declassified version of the Israeli intelligence, the organization will be forced to concede that those staff members were wrongly terminated and either re-employ or compensate them.

It beggars belief that Mr. Guterres, a savvy political operator, could have unknowingly walked into this dilemma. An alternative explanation is that the secretary-general is attempting to restore Unrwa funding by creating the semblance of a legitimate inquiry. When in all likelihood the OIOS issues an inconclusive report, the calls to disband Unrwa will appear less justified.

During my time in the office, I saw how its operations are plagued by incompetence. One case, concerning investigations into more than 100 allegations of sexual abuse against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic between 2014 and 2015, is especially representative. In 2019 I uncovered an internal draft review of the office’s investigations. Among its findings: Staff consistently complained of improper planning; interviews with alleged victims were taken but not sufficiently organized or analyzed; and improper DNA storage allowed samples to be corrupted. Though the office director announced that institutional changes had been made after the review, it’s dubious any discrete reforms will fully address such a mess.

Some will doubtless insist that the OIOS investigation is only part of a multilayered effort to root out and expose terrorist sympathies within Unrwa. Mr. Guterres, in coordination with Mr. Lazzarini, has also appointed an outside review led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna. Yet the chances her review will be truly “independent" are similarly slim. On Jan. 12 Ms. Colonna tweeted that Mr. Lazzarini had her “full renewed support for your work," which is “more useful than ever." Two other organizations tapped to participate in the review—the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Norwegian Chr. Michelsen Institute—have published articles by staffers signaling their support for South Africa’s charge at the International Court of Justice that Israel is guilty of genocide.

Ms. Colonna’s review, along with the OIOS investigation, will be a fig leaf for Mr. Guterres to preserve Unrwa and its generous funding so that its employees can live to fight another day.

Mr. Gallo, a lawyer, was an investigator for the OIOS, 2011-15.

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