As the truce in the Israel-Hamas war was ending on Thursday, Cindy McCain, the executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program, met virtually with her staff to address an internal uproar over accusations that she was not leveraging her position to speak out against the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Many of the global staff members who gathered were angered by her refusal to publicly call for a cease-fire, and there was a growing demand for her removal. In a video of the meeting shared with The New York Times, several employees read statements sharply criticizing Ms. McCain for being tone-deaf to staff concerns.
“You were not here for us — with all due respect, you have failed us,” a woman speaking from Gaza on behalf of Palestinian staff members not present at the meeting says in the video. “The W.F.P.’s response has been and continues to be insufficient in the face of the magnitude of need, and as the esteemed leader of the United Nations food agency, what will you do to rebuild the trust that you broke among your staff?”
Staff members also accused Ms. McCain of compromising the neutrality of the organization by attending an international security forum on Nov. 18 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, she was introduced in her official U.N. capacity and sat next to Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel. An annual prize in public service named after her late husband, Senator John McCain, was awarded to the “People of Israel.”
In the footage of the meeting with staff members, Ms. McCain defends herself, saying that she had signed a joint letter with other U.N. agency leaders calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.
And addressing her attendance at the Halifax forum, she says: “I will always support the legacy of my husband. No one will ever take that away from me.”
Representatives of the World Food Program did not respond to a request for a comment. But Stéphane Dujarric, the United Nations spokesman, defended Ms. McCain to reporters on Friday, saying she was doing “an excellent job” and had the full support of the U.N. leadership.
“I think both her leadership and what W.F.P. has been doing in Gaza has been exemplary,” Mr. Dujarric said.
Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack and Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, tensions and emotions about the conflict have flared at government agencies, university campuses and art and cultural institutions. People from each side of the divide have said they feel their views were not being validated by leaders or that they were being punished, harassed or “canceled” for expressing support for either side.
The United Nations has been no exception: Diplomats and officials say that tensions about the wording in documents, speeches and comments of senior officials have roiled the organization at every level.
Ms. McCain was appointed this year by Secretary General António Guterres to lead the World Food Program, which has more than 23,000 employees worldwide, after her stint as the American ambassador to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome.
Staff members of the program who spoke to The Times asked that their names not be published because they were not authorized to talk about internal affairs. In interviews and in the video meeting, they accused Ms. McCain of not calling out Israel for what they described as using food as a weapon in the Gaza Strip, where water and electricity have been cut off during Israel’s military offensive.
Senior officials at the World Food Program have said that Gaza’s 2.2 million people were on the brink of starvation because of Israel’s siege, the lack of fuel and the inadequate amount of aid entering Gaza.
Mr. Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, said the program was the second-most-active U.N. agency distributing vital food, grain and aid to civilians in Gaza after UNRWA, the agency serving Palestinian refugees.
When Ms. McCain called the meeting, staff members in the program’s Jordan offices boycotted it. Others staged a symbolic walkout because, they said in interviews, they believed that Ms. McCain was defensive, combative and not listening to their concerns.
Staff members criticized Ms. McCain, for example, for not attending a global moment of silence observed by all U.N. agencies and their leaders at their headquarters for the 110 U.N. employees killed in Gaza, the highest number of staff members to die in any conflict in the history of the organization.
Many W.F.P. employees described the meeting as a belated attempt at damage control, one that did not calm their anger and instead strengthened their belief that she should be ousted.
Staff members have circulated two public petitions with a combined total of more than 2,000 signatures calling for Ms. McCain to “uphold and respect” humanitarian values and the U.N.’s mandates of neutrality, and to use her platform for stronger “advocacy for humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and to leverage WFP’s influence to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war.”
Staff members also wrote emails, seen by The Times, to the U.N.’s ethics office requesting a review of whether her attendance at the Halifax event had been appropriate and in line with guidelines and policies.