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Two women have been named to highly visible posts at the United Nations: Pramila Patten of Mauritius is the new special envoy on sexual violence in conflict and begins in mid-June; and Virginia Gamba, an Argentine, is special envoy on children in armed conflict, beginning May 1.
The latter is arguably the more controversial job because through an annual report it directly implicates governments and other parties who abuse the rights of the world’s most vulnerable population — children — in wars. The next report, covering 2016, is due out in early June. It will most likely contain information on Saudi Arabia’s role in the deaths of children and other harms to them in Yemen.
• Patten, 58, has nearly 25 years of experience working on women’s issues, first in Mauritius, then internationally, including as a member since 2003 of the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw. She was also commissioner of the international inquiry into the 2009 massacre in Conakry, Guinea, in which government forces shot 150 opposition members at a stadium and where more than 100 women were raped in broad daylight in the attack. A trial in Guinea has yet to occur.
In addition, Patten has been a member of a high-level group monitoring the implementation of the UN Security Council landmark resolution on women, peace and security. A member of the British bar, Patten has a law degree from the University of London.
Her appointment was greeted enthusiastically by feminists who track UN work on women’s rights. “Wonderful integrity & expertise!” tweeted Anne Marie Goetz, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and formerly an adviser on peace and security for UN Women.
Patten is among 14 women named to senior positions by Secretary-General António Guterres in his tenure since Jan. 1, out of 31 appointments so far. Guterres pledged gender parity in upper UN posts on his first day in office. Ban Ki-moon, his predecessor, had achieved gains but never parity.
In an interview, Melanne Verveer, the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University, said that in her new post, Patten would have the constitutive power to move gender parity forward in the UN.
“You’ve got an organization that has an agency devoted to women, all kinds of documents that talk about the role of women in development, in social progress, in moving economies, as leaders and survivors in conflict, and then don’t represent women at the highest levels,” Verveer said. “So there is a disparity, certainly, between what it stands for and exemplifying the female participation that is called for in many of its documents.”
Patten’s appointment will be closely watched as President Trump aims to eliminate funds to the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the US State Department. Verveer was the first ambassador of the office, chosen by Barack Obama. She said that Patten’s legal career, work with Cedaw and especially her involvement in Resolution 1325 make her well situated for the envoy role, which requires her to politically navigate the UN on conflict-related sexual violence.
The office produces an annual report on country situations and has a team of experts on the rule of law and sexual violence in conflict that currently helps officials build these specialties in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea and South Sudan. The newest report was released on May 2.
Patten replaces Zainab Hawa Bangura of Sierra Leone, who served from 2012 to 2017 and elevated the public profile of the job by traveling to, among other settings, refugee camps. In Iraq in 2015, she met with Yazidi women and girls who survived the capture of ISIS. Margot Wallstrom of Sweden was the first person to take the position at the UN, in 2010, after it was created under Secretary-General Ban. Wallstrom is now foreign minister of her country.
Like her predecessors, Patten will need to work not only throughout the UN system but also with the Security Council, where she could face pushback from some members intent on keeping the women, peace and security agenda off the front burner.
“On the ground, she’ll have to be an advocate, working to prevent outbreaks, seeing the conditions, understanding the conditions and being that warming mechanism for the situation of women,” Verveer said. “But she must also be instrumental at the top in terms of bringing resources and awareness. A strong presence among the highest leadership of the United Nations will ensure she is not viewed as tangential to, but rather as significant to the greater resolution of these issues.”
• Virginia Gamba, 63, has more than 30 years of experience on disarmament and peace and human security. She most recently worked in the UN Office of Disarmament as head of the investigation on who has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war. (Her replacement is Edmond Mulet of Guatemala, a UN veteran.) Gamba has also held senior positions in civil-society groups and other international operations. Her new job represents a rare move by the UN, promoting a woman within the system and not as a political appointee.
Before working as director and deputy to the head of Disarmament Affairs, from 2012-2015, Gamba was deputy director of safety and security for the Institute for Public Safety in Buenos Aires from 2009 to 2012. She worked in South Africa as director of South-South Interactions of SaferAfrica from 2001 to 2007; previously, she was deputy director of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
Gamba succeeds Leila Zerrougui of Algeria, who was in office from 2012 until early this year and faced tremendous pressure supervising the annual children in armed conflict report, which names and shames countries and nonstate parties that use child soldiers and inflict other violence against children. The report is meant to be a last resort, after negotiations with the perpetrators have failed. The office consults with other UN partners in its mandate, such as Unicef, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs.
Two years ago, Zerrougui was prevented by Secretary-General Ban, through arm-twisting by the United States, to not include Israel as a violator of children’s rights in the Gaza conflict in 2014, as she was prepared to do.
The next year, Zerrougui was in the spotlight for listing Saudi Arabia in the report for its bombing of schools and hospitals in Yemen as part of the Gulf-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels, who in turn were accused of recruiting child soldiers. The Saudis threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the UN, so the country was temporarily delisted from the report instead. It remains so, “pending review,” the report notes.
The country appears to be headed for inclusion in the latest report as the Saudis still inflict airstrikes on schools and hospitals, murdering children and adults. The US is debating whether to increase its weapons sales to the Saudis in their war in Yemen, if they can show they are taking precautions to avoid civilian deaths.
The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, met with her Saudi counterpart, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, on April 21, in his office. A statement from the US mission, which included a photograph of the two ambassadors, said briefly, “The two discussed their countries’ shared determination to stop Iran’s meddling in the region, including in Syria. The ambassadors also discussed the conflict in Yemen and efforts to get the parties back to the negotiating table.” (The statement is not on the US mission website but was sent to media.)
A new report by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and Save the Children documents a series of deadly attacks on hospitals and medics over the last two years — and calls on Secretary-General Guterres to add the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to the annual list.
In an interview, Eva Smets, the executive director of the Watchlist group, said the main challenge for both Gamba and Guterres regarding the annual report will be “to ensure the list is composed independently and based on the facts. They will need to exercise this ability to speak out on violations in the face of undue political pressure, which we can assume will be a challenge this year again.”
Zerrougi was also criticized for mishandling revelations of alleged sexual abuse of children by French peacekeeping soldiers, operating under the French flag, in the Central African Republic in 2015 and, more recently, by UN peacekeepers in Haiti.
Zerrougui left the UN on March 31 and returned to Algeria. She said that her proudest achievement was her office’s campaign “Children, Not Soldiers,” aimed at preventing use of children in armies. What was once an “intractable problem of child soldiers” use, she said in a statement, can now be resolved “with political will and practical measures.”
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the children in armed conflict’s original mandate, and Gamba recognized the long history of the post, saying in a phone interview, “It’s a mature position, there is a lot of water that has gone under the bridge.” Because her background is in strategic studies and peace and security, rather than law and working on matters related to children, Gamba said she would bring a new approach to the position.
“My forte is the building and development of security in whatever situation,” Gamba said. “As such, I’m hoping to play a more practical, hands-on approach to see where the gaps are in implementation, conflict resolution and national action plans. I want to go beyond the paper and try to work with member states to see how to improve capacity and implementation.”
This article was updated on May 2, 2017.