UN sexual violence envoy pulls out of Security Council briefing on Hamas hostages

Diplomat tells ToI Pramila Patten’s withdrawal had nothing to do with scheduling, hinting move was politically motivated as she faces pressure not to prioritize Israeli abductees

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, addresses the UN Security Council on March 11, 2024. (Screen capture)
Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, addresses the UN Security Council on March 11, 2024. (Screen capture)

The UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict Pramila Patten pulled out of a Security Council session where she was supposed to brief members about the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7, a UN diplomat told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Invitations to the Thursday event organized by the US Mission to the UN were sent to Security Council members last week and obtained by The Times of Israel. The session is titled “Condemning hostage-taking in Israel on October 7 as a psychological tool of terrorism.”

Patten — the UN special representative whose purview most closely overlaps with the topic — was named as the first of three briefers along with a civil society representative and a released Israeli hostage or relative of a hostage.

But in the updated invitations — or “concept notes” — sent out to members on Monday and also obtained by The Times of Israel, Patten was no longer listed among the briefers.

A UN diplomat said on condition of anonymity that Patten’s withdrawal was not due to scheduling issues.

The diplomat hinted that the decision was politically motivated, as her office has faced pressure not to be seen as prioritizing the plight of the Israeli hostages over that of the Palestinians caught in the middle of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Protestors gather outside the UN headquarters in New York City on December 4, 2023, to protest the international community’s perceived silence on sexual violence committed by Hamas terrorists against Israeli women during the October 7 massacre. (Carli Fogel)

Patten’s office issued a statement Tuesday afternoon confirming that she wouldn’t be attending the Thursday session but did not offer any reason why.

The statement stressed that Patten has “repeatedly called for the release of all hostages” and highlighted the report she issued in March that found there was “clear and convincing information” to indicate that hostages held captive in Gaza were subjected to “sexual violence including rape, sexualized torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Patten’s office noted that the report was presented to the Security Council at a special session last month and that in the meantime, she has continued engaging with the families of the hostages. “The special representative has not wavered in her position or her commitment to always act with the best interest of the hostages and their families in mind – and never to act on this issue based on politics,” her office said.

“Although regretfully she cannot participate in [Thursday’s] meeting, the special representative supports any process that leads towards the release of the hostages,” the statement added.

Organizers are still working to secure the attendance of a different senior UN official to brief Security Council members instead of Patten, the UN diplomat said.

While the sexual violence angle of Hamas’s hostage taking was indeed discussed by the Security Council last month, the US mission organized Thursday’s session to raise additional awareness regarding the issue. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield has repeatedly criticized the international community for not paying sufficient attention to the plight of the remaining 132 hostages and to the crimes perpetrated by Hamas.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at ‘Hostage Square’ in Tel Aviv, on the eve of Israel’s 76th independence day, May 13, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The meeting “will focus on the demand that Hamas and other armed groups immediately and unconditionally release all hostages being held in Gaza,” reads the invitation.

It will also “aim to highlight the long-term health and psychological impact of hostage-taking not only on those held, but those left behind, and therefore will seek to identify steps the Security Council can take to address and deter hostage-taking and the related use of physical and emotional abuse and mental anguish as tactics of terrorism.”

“Participants will discuss how to facilitate immediate access for humanitarian actors or neutral intermediaries, so that they may assist those individuals held by non-state actors, including terrorist groups, and support efforts to inform families about the welfare and whereabouts of their family members,” the invitation adds.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan welcomed the scheduling of Thursday’s session, saying Jerusalem had worked extensively behind the scenes in order to hold what will be the first Security Council session focused exclusively on the hostages taken by Hamas. Last month’s meeting also touched on Palestinian suspects held in Israel.

“The council will finally be forced to look into the eyes of the abducted Dr. Shoshan Haran and the mother of the late [hostage] Jonathan Samerano and realize that Israel will not stop until the hostages are released and that the correct address for applying pressure is the monstrous terrorist organization Hamas,” Erdan said in a statement, which also thanked Thomas-Greenfield for chairing the event.

The session will be led by the US envoy, but it has been cosponsored by the missions of Albania, Austria,
Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungry, Israel, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Spain, and the the UK.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes abstain on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

Last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s office declined to include Hamas in a report compiled by his office on organizations suspected of committing acts of sexual violence during conflict, infuriating Israel.

The document, titled “Conflict-related sexual violence,” and published as a “Report of the Secretary-General,” noted there is evidence that sex crimes were committed during the Palestinian terror group Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel, but did not specifically attribute responsibility to Hamas.

In his report, Guterres referenced the assessment made by Patten in her own report but argued that it wasn’t “investigative in nature and given its limited duration, did not draw conclusions on attribution to specific armed groups or determine prevalence of incidents of conflict-related sexual violence during and after the attacks of 7 October. Such a determination would require a fully-fledged investigation.”

On October 7, Hamas led a massive cross-border attack on Israel that killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Two hundred and fifty-two people were also taken hostage.

Israel responded by launching a war in Gaza to topple Hamas, which has killed some 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals at this time. The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.” It also includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7. Two-hundred and seventy-two Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting in Gaza.

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