National Review

The UN Is Failing Women and the Cause of Human Dignity

Agencies whose very purpose is to stand up for women and human rights but fail to condemn sexual violence are empowering the world’s worst actors.

Kennedy Lee Headshot
Kennedy Lee Headshot
Former Research Associate and Program Manager, Keystone Defense Initiative and Center on Europe and Eurasia
Members of the Security Council listen as Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a meeting on the Israel-Hamas war at United Nations headquarters on October 30, 2023, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)
Members of the Security Council listen as Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a meeting on the Israel-Hamas war at United Nations headquarters on October 30, 2023, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)

With the news in recent weeks that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza was infested with terrorism, another United Nations failure was swept under the rug. Despite over 1,500 testimonies by survivors, security forces, and first responders of the sexual violence, including rape and genital mutilation, committed by Hamas on October 7, the U.N. waited almost four months to send an envoy to Israel to address it. At a time when powerful adversaries of Western values and institutions seek to normalize sexual violence and an indifference to human dignity, the U.N.’s failure counts as an enormous strategic blunder.

When Pramila Patten, the U.N. envoy for sexual violence in conflict, finally did arrive in Israel, she mainly delivered platitudes about identifying “avenues for support” and encouraging victims to “break [their] silence” in search of justice. It took the U.N. agency tasked with upholding women’s rights 55 days to condemn Hamas’s violence. That long silence is hardly in keeping with the U.N.’s strongly worded condemnation on July 7, 2023, of the rise in conflict-related sexual violence and call for the Security Council to “better prevent such crimes.”

The U.N.’s failure to act swiftly on this issue demonstrates a larger misunderstanding of how this kind of violence is used by groups who put no stock in human rights and seek to subjugate their own and neighboring populations by any means necessary.

Hamas is not the only perpetrator of atrocities of sexual violence. Rape, humiliation, and other acts of sexual assault have become all too common as tools of oppression wielded by Iran, China, and Russia.

Tyrannical regimes are willing to use sexual violence as a weapon, and tactics well outside the norms of civilized behavior, because they have little concern for the West’s standards of civilization. They seek to supplant the current order built on the foundations of rule of law and justice, democratic principles, and respect for human dignity. These are the same beliefs enshrined in the U.N. Charter and that every U.N. employee should seek to uphold. At this far too many have failed miserably.

Iran’s theocratic dictatorship is one of the world’s chief violators of human dignity. Many “Woman, Life, Freedom” protesters have been sexually and physically assaulted by Iran’s security forces since the killing of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022, while in police custody. The fear of indiscriminate arrest and the murmurs of the sexual brutalities endured by women in the security forces’ hands was for some a deterrent from joining the thousands of Iranians standing up for individual dignity. The regime went so far as to deliberately poison more than 1,200 school girls as it sought to stamp out the protests.

The Iranian regime is also encouraging barbarism by propping up regional proxies. In Yemen, for example, the Houthis’ systematic suppression of women’s rights includes restrictions on travel, frequent kidnappings, arbitrary detention, and sexual assault. Hamas itself is backed and funded by Iran. In the weeks leading up to October 7, hundreds of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists went through specialized combat training in Iran led by the Quds Force, the foreign branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In China, the genocide against the Uyghur people continues. As Beijing attempts to strategically eliminate a minority ethnic group, brave former detainees have come forward describing horrors from the labor camps where Uyghurs were forcibly detained. Some report that women were removed from their cells and systematically raped nightly by guards or men from the outside from whom money was collected. One former detainee said, “It is designed to destroy everyone’s spirit.”

In Ukraine, civilians are the victims of war crimes, including widespread torture and rape, by the invading Russian troops. International watchdogs have found evidence of systematic sexual violence against Ukrainian girls and women ranging in age from 16 to 83. The families of the women were often kept in rooms nearby, forced to hear the brutality.

After the October 7 massacre, UN Women failed in its most basic duty: to swiftly condemn Hamas’s sexual violence against Israeli women, for which there was incontrovertible evidence, much of it from the cameras of the terrorists themselves. Yet seven weeks after the attack, U.N. Women was still demanding further proof. It should come as no surprise that Putin’s regime promptly welcomed a delegation of Hamas representatives to Moscow, or that Beijing has yet to condemn Hamas’s brutalities while providing Hamas with diplomatic cover at the U.N. and in other international bodies.

International human-rights organizations should feel shame at being on the same side as the world’s most repressive regimes. UN Women and other agencies that delayed or refused to condemn Hamas for its blatant crimes against women, children, and innocents on October 7 have only given those regimes license to do more of the same.

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