Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

UN workers in Yemen under investigation for corruption

WHO and Unicef are investigating staff over allegations of wrongdoing in Yemen, while a report says that Houthi rebels often pressure aid workers into hiring their loyalists

Yemenis take part in a protest calling for the reopening of Sanaa airport to receive medical aid in front of the UN offices in Sanaa, Yemen. AP
Yemenis take part in a protest calling for the reopening of Sanaa airport to receive medical aid in front of the UN offices in Sanaa, Yemen. AP

More than a dozen United Nations aid workers who have worked in Yemen have been accused of corruption, an investigation by Associated Press has found.

Both the World Health Organisation and children's fund Unicef are looking into allegations of wrongdoing by staff deployed to the country, which is suffering a humanitarian crisis after five years of civil war.

The accusations include graft and nepotism, as well as allowing a senior Houthi rebel access to a UN vehicle.

Furthermore, the AP also obtained a confidential UN report that said that Houthi authorities often pressure aid agencies into hiring their loyalists, and seek to control their movements by threatening to revoked their visas.

An official told them that the UN's inability or unwillingness to address the problems harms efforts to help Yemenis affected by the war.

It comes months after the Yemeni government accused the UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths of siding with the Houthis over a troop withdrawal from the port city of Hodeidah. After a series of exchanges between President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi — who is in exile in Saudi Arabia — and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres relations have normalised.

The AP report came after the conducted interviews with eight aid workers and former government officials.

The WHO investigation focuses on the former chief of their Sanaa office, Italian doctor Nevio Zagaria, who was in the role from 2016 until September 2018. Former and current workers said the office was riddled with corruption and nepotism under his tenure.

They also accused Mr Zagaria of bringing in junior staffers he had worked with in the Philippines, giving them senior roles on high salaries and then asking them to carry out menial personal tasks, such as taking care of his dog.

It is also alleged that Mr Zagaria approved questionable contracts, which appeared to result in kickbacks for WHO staff. Internal documents also said that aid funds that were meant to provide support during emergencies were spent with little monitoring.

The WHO allows aid money to be transferred to staff accounts to speed up the purchasing of goods during a crisis. The organisation has confirmed the investigation is under way.

Unicef's internal auditors are also looking into allegations that a staff member, Khurram Javed, a Pakistani national who was known to have ties to Houthi security agencies and had previously been publicly thanked by them for his work, allowed a senior Houthi rebel use an agency vehicle. This effectively offers them protection from the Saudi-led coalition, who the Houthis are fighting, and exposes the agency's vehicles to the possibility of being targeted in future air strikes.

Unicef clears its vehicles’ movements with the Coalition to ensure their safety.

AP said they spoke to several people who said that close ties between UN staff members and local officials on both sides of the conflict is normal.

On Sunday, the UN food agency said that it had reached a deal with Yemen’s Houthi rebels to resume aid deliveries to rebel-held areas after relief was suspended in June.

The World Food Progamme accused the rebels of stealing food assistance.

AP also said that efforts to expose corruption in Yemen are hampered by Houthi interference. In October 2018, UN investigators who were attempting to leave on flight from Sanaa with laptops and external drives collected from WHO staff were stopped by militia men, and the evidence confiscated.

Staff said that an employee, Tamima al-Ghuly, had notified the Houthis that the investigators were leaving with the laptops. They said she had also been creating ghost employees to collect their salaries and taking bribes to hire people. She allegedly also put her husband on the payroll.

Ms Al-Ghuly has since been suspended, but remains a WHO employee.

The UAE is part of a coalition of nine Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia who began military intervention in Yemen on behalf of the legitimate government in 2015.

Updated: August 5, 2019 08:04 PM

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