What's In Blue

Posted Sun 10 Mar 2024

The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Tomorrow afternoon (11 March), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten is expected to brief. France, the UK, and the US called for the meeting following a request from Israel after the issuance of a 4 March report on a 29 January-14 February visit conducted by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict to Israel and the West Bank.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Patten is expected to provide an overview of her report. At the invitation of the government of Israel, Patten and a technical team of nine UN experts conducted a mission to Israel to gather, analyse, and verify information on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) during the 7 October 2023 Hamas-led attacks against Israel.

According to figures provided by Israeli authorities, more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed during the 7 October 2023 attacks. As at 8 March, an estimated 134 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza, according to figures cited by OCHA. Following the 7 October 2023 attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have carried out massive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. On 27 October 2023, the IDF also launched a ground operation initially focused on northern Gaza and later extended to most other areas of the Gaza Strip. Figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicate that, as at 8 March, at least 30,878 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza.

According to remarks given by Patten during a 4 March press conference, she worked in Israel from 29 January to 4 February while her team spent two and a half weeks there. The objective of the visit to Israel, as stated in the report and in Patten’s remarks during the press conference, was to inform reporting by her office to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council, including the annual report of the Secretary-General on CRSV, “given the absence of relevant United Nations entities operating in Israel” and, consequently, of UN-verified information to include in her reports. (The annual report on CRSV is expected ahead of the Security Council’s annual open debate on CRSV, which is scheduled to take place in April.)

Tomorrow, Patten may say that, as stated in her report, the mission “was not intended to be, and is not a substitute for”, an investigation by relevant UN entities, “nor is it a replacement for criminal investigations”. Patten may also explain, as she did at the 4 March press conference, that the standard of proof adopted by her mission was one of “reasonable grounds to believe”, but where more information supported a finding of fact, her office made a finding of “clear and convincing information”, which is higher than “reasonable grounds to believe”, but lower than the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Patten is expected to highlight the key findings of her mission. According to the mission’s report, there are reasonable grounds to believe that CRSV, including rape and gang rape, was perpetrated “in at least three locations” during the 7 October attacks. The locations identified include the area of the Nova music festival, where the report says that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that multiple incidents of sexual violence took place with victims being subjected to rape and/or gang rape and then killed or killed while being raped”. The mission also identified “a pattern of undressing and restraining of victims”, which, although circumstantial, “may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence”. Regarding the hostages taken into Gaza during the attacks, the mission found clear and convincing information that some of the hostages have been subjected to various forms of CRSV, “including rape and sexualized torture and sexualized cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and it also has reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing”.

Patten may also detail some of the challenges that her team faced during its mission to Israel. Some of these, as identified by Patten during her 4 March press conference, included “limited professionally gathered forensic material, inaccurate and unreliable forensic interpretation by some non-professionals, the extremely limited availability of victims and survivors and witnesses of sexual violence due partly to the displacement of affected communities”, and lack of trust in national and international institutions, including the UN. Patten noted that the mission was not able to meet with any CRSV survivors, but received information that some survivors were “receiving very specialised trauma treatment and were not prepared to come forward”. During the press conference, she also said that some allegations of sexual violence previously reported and highly publicised in the media were determined by the team to be unfounded.

The mission also included a visit to the West Bank. According to Patten’s remarks at the 4 March press conference, the visit to the West Bank consisted of a one-day visit to Ramallah by Patten, followed by a further one-day visit by her team. Unlike her visit to Israel, the visit to the West Bank was not intended to verify information because the UN is already in possession of relevant UN-verified data. According to the mission’s report, the purpose of this visit was to “hear the views and concerns of Palestinian counterparts and engage with them” on reports of CRSV “allegedly committed by Israeli security forces and settlers”. In this regard, the report notes that “[s]takeholders raised concerns about cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Palestinians in detention, including the increased use of various forms of sexual violence, namely invasive body searches; threats of rape; and prolonged forced nudity”.

In light of the ongoing hostilities, Patten’s mission did not include a visit to the Gaza Strip. However, some UN entities in Gaza monitor and address sexual and gender-based violence and will send information to the Special Representative’s office for inclusion in the Secretary-General’s annual report on CRSV, Patten said at the 4 March press conference.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to strongly condemn all forms of CRSV and are likely to call for justice and accountability for these crimes. At the same time, interventions are likely to be divided between members focusing mostly on condemning Hamas and concentrating on CRSV in the context of the 7 October attacks, and members also focusing on violations against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Some may cite recent UN Women estimates that 9,000 women have reportedly been killed by Israeli forces during the war between Israel and Hamas or the 19 February statement by several UN independent experts citing reports that “[a]t least two female Palestinian detainees were reportedly raped while others were reportedly threatened with rape and sexual violence” while in detention.

Patten and several Council members are likely to reiterate some of the key recommendations contained in the report. These include encouraging the Israeli government to grant access to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel to “carry-out fully-fledged investigations into all alleged violations”, and urging Hamas and other armed groups to immediately and unconditionally release all hostages and to ensure their protection, including from sexual violence. The report also recommends urging “all parties to the conflict to adopt a humanitarian ceasefire, and to ensure that expertise on addressing conflict-related sexual violence informs the design and implementation of all ceasefire and political agreements and that the voices of women and affected communities are heard in all conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes”. Several members may also stress the urgent need to address the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and rebuild a political horizon towards the permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It seems that at least some Council members have concerns regarding the risk of politicisation of tomorrow’s meeting following recent statements by Israeli officials.

Patten has opposed the use of her report to justify further violence and is likely to do so again tomorrow. In a 7 March interview with France 24 Patten said that her report “should not in any way be misused to justify the denial of a humanitarian ceasefire” nor should it be “instrumentalised in any way to continue with this bloodshed”, adding that the end goal of her mission “is not a war without rape, it is a world without war”. While it is unclear to what extent Council members may directly address instrumentalisation concerns in their remarks tomorrow, some may express their strong support for Patten and the UN Secretary-General as well as for the work of the UN more broadly.

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