Under-Secretary-General Pramila Patten

Under-Secretary-General Pramila Patten is the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC), having been appointed to this position on 12 April 2017. Her portfolio is global and multifaceted, focused on providing strategic leadership and coordination to UN system-wide efforts to prevent and address the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). 

Prior to this appointment and since 2003, Ms. Patten served as a member of the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She was the Chairperson of the Working Group on General Recommendation No. 30 on “Women in Conflict Prevention, Conflict and Post-Conflict situations”. She has been a member of several High-Level Panels and Projects, including the High-Level Advisory Group for the Global Study on the Implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, and the Advisory Panel for the African Women’s Rights Observatory (AWRO) within the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). She previously was a Commissioner appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General to the International Commission of Inquiry into the massacre in Guinea Conakry, on 28 September 2009.

A national of Mauritius, Ms. Patten has been a practicing lawyer since 1982, and is a member of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. She also served as an Adviser in the Ministry of Women’s Rights, Child Development and Family Welfare of Mauritius from 2000 to 2004.

Follow the work of the Office of the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict: @endrapeinwar

USG Patten was profiled for ATLAS by Sareta Ashraph.


What drew you to working in domestic human rights law and later, international law? And what were your first steps?

The protection and promotion of women’s human rights, and the advancement of gender equality have been central themes throughout my career. It did not take me long to realize that human rights play a part in several legal disciplines from public law, family, immigration and housing law to actions against the police and even employment and business law. 

As a law student in London, I was very interested in Corporate law and decided to specialize in Commercial law. In June 1982, I returned to Mauritius and joined a law firm specialized in Corporate law. I also taught Company law and Industrial and Intellectual Property law on a part-time basis at the University of Mauritius. As time went by, I became very disturbed by the extent to which women did not know their rights and as a result, were not claiming them. I was also struck by the range of discriminatory laws; the poor implementation of laws relevant to women as well as their limited access to justice. I must concede that without even realizing it, my legal career gradually changed trajectory. I simply could not stay indifferent and therefore, in addition to my corporate practice, I decided to advocate for gender equality. 

In 1993, as part of an effort to alter the legal landscape and raise awareness of women’s rights, I founded an NGO known as Women’s Legal Action Watch (WLAW) which focused on legal literacy as well as advocacy for the legal reform of discriminatory laws. My interest in public policy led me to accept an offer to serve as Adviser to the Ministry of Women’s Rights, Child Development and Family Welfare of Mauritius, from 2000 to 2004.

At the regional level, I was invited to serve on the Executive Committee and Governing Council of two pan-African networks of organizations: Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF) based, at the time, in Zimbabwe and the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies, based in Gambia. 

In 2002, I was elected on the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) which monitors the implementation of the Convention that is widely regarded as an “international bill of rights for women”. I was elected four times and accordingly served as an expert between 2003 to 2017. The work of the Committee was very rewarding as it provided me with the opportunity to influence laws, policies and programmes in so many countries. 

In 2017, I was appointed as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict and consequently resigned from the CEDAW Committee and other NGOs on whose boards I was serving.

Tell us about the mandate and current priorities of the Office. 

My mandate was established by the United Nations Security Council – the world’s paramount peace and security body – through the unanimous adoption of resolution 1888 in September 2009. The Council described their vision for the role of Special Representative in terms of being “a voice for the voiceless” and a spokesperson for a violation that has been deemed “history’s greatest silence” and “the world’s least-condemned war crime”. The resolution was introduced by then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who categorically affirmed that sexual violence was “not cultural, but criminal”. 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the mandate.

Through a series of related resolutions, the Security Council also established important tools and mechanisms for addressing sexual violence as a tactic of war, a threat to security, and an impediment to the restoration of peace. For instance, it created a Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict, based in my Office, which supports affected governments to strengthen their institutional safeguards against impunity. Their work involves technical assistance and capacity-building support to national Rule of Law institutions. It also mandated the deployment of dedicated Women’s Protection Advisers (WPAs) to UN field missions to engage with the parties to armed conflict to secure compliance with international norms. My Office prepares annually for presentation to the Security Council, a report on conflict-related sexual violence. The last annual report covered 19 countries and included an annexed list that “names and shames” 47 parties to armed conflict for committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence. The Security Council further authorizes the inclusion of sexual violence as part of the designation criteria for sanctions, which places economic pressure on the individuals and entities implicated in these violations. 

In order to avoid gaps and overlaps in the programmatic response, I chair an interagency network known as UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, which unites the work of 13 different UN entities from across the spectrum of public health, human rights, gender equality, peacekeeping, and political affairs. This network is a critical platform for responding more comprehensively to the needs of survivors, and for shifting from a purely reactive mode to also focus on preventive diplomacy by ensuring that sexual violence is included as a prohibited act in ceasefire agreements and reflected in peace accords as a crime that cannot be amnestied. 

Since taking up this mandate, I have set out three strategic priorities to guide and focus my tenure: 

  • converting cultures of impunity into cultures of justice and accountability through consistent and effective prosecution. It is critical to focus on prevention, on how to stop sexual violence from occurring in the first place. Prevention is possible because sexual violence is never an accident.My fight against conflict-related sexual violence has become a fight against impunity. It is through consistent and effective prosecution that would-be perpetrators will be deterred from committing such crimes. It simply can no longer cost-free to rape. 

  • fostering national ownership and leadership for a sustainable, survivor-centred response. The face of the mandate is that of a survivor. Only a survivor-centered approach can promote a survivor’s recovery and prioritize the survivor’s rights, needs and wishes. This means ensuring that survivors have access to appropriate, accessible and good quality services including healthcare; psychosocial support; legal services and livelihood support, especially in cases where survivors have been rejected by families.

  • addressing the root causes of CRSV with structural gender inequality and discrimination, poverty and marginalization as its invisible driver in times of war and peace.

Resolutions, like any policy framework or piece of legislation, are only as good as their implementation and enforcement. Ultimately, the measure of success is not more legal and policy frameworks, but a tangible improvement in the lives of women affected by war; it is not more resolutions, but sincere and sustained political resolve on the part of national authorities. As the United Nations, we can support, but can never supplant, the efforts of national government officials and institutions to deliver services, justice, redress, and guarantees of non-repetition. 


What have been the high points of your career thus far?

At the national level, I am proud of the work I did under my NGO. I have contributed significantly in shaping the legislative framework on women’s rights in my country. In 2000, I was appointed by the Government to chair a Task Force on “Discriminatory laws in Mauritius”. All my recommendations were endorsed by the Government and I was even able to oversee their implementation - when I was appointed as Special Adviser to the Minister on Gender Equality between 2000 to 2004. In this role, I had the opportunity to draft some key laws for the Government such as: The Child Protection Bill; The Sex Discrimination Bill; The Protection from Domestic Violence Bill. In 2005, I was also tasked by the Government to work on the reform of the Family justice system. I recommended the establishment of a Family Court which was indeed established in 2008. 

I have represented women in a large number of emblematic cases and I especially rejoice over cases which have subsequently resulted in amendments being brought to the law. One concrete example is the introduction of “Battered Women Syndrome” as a defence in our criminal law, following the submission I made in the case of a woman, the victim of severe domestic violence for several years, who had killed her husband.

At the international level, I am immensely proud of my work on the CEDAW Committee over 15 years. As a CEDAW expert, I have given technical assistance to over 50 countries in different areas covered by the Convention, ranging from designing programmes and policies in the areas of education, employment, health, and the participation of women in public and political life. I have also drafted laws for a significant number of countries, mainly laws on sexual and gender-based violence as well as electoral laws. I have provided support in the elaboration of a number of national action plans on the implementation of CEDAW recommendations as well as national action plans on Women Peace and Security. 

I  drafted the ground-breaking General Recommendation No. 30 (GR 30) on “Women in Conflict Prevention, Conflict and Post-Conflict situation” which was adopted in October 2013. In that General Recommendation, I stressed the applicability of the CEDAW Convention to a diverse range of settings affected by conflict and political crises and affirmed the Convention’s linkages with the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. I highlighted how, when brought together, they offer a substantive framework to ensure that gender equality becomes integral to conflict prevention, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction and accountability. The primary purpose of GR 30 is to provide authoritative guidance to States parties on the legislative, policy and other appropriate measures to ensure full compliance with their Convention obligations to protect, respect and fulfil women’s human rights in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict contexts. GR 30 is broad in its thematic scope and covers: gender-based violence and trafficking; participation; access to education, employment and health, and rural women; displacement, refugees and asylum-seekers; nationality and statelessness; marriage and family relations; security sector reform and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants; constitutional and electoral reform; and access to justice.

Another highlight of my career is my appointment in October 2009, by the then UN Secretary-General, as a Commissioner on the International Commission of Inquiry on Guinea mandated to establish the facts and circumstances of the events of 28 September 2009 in Guinea and the related events in their immediate aftermath, qualify the crimes perpetrated, identify those responsible, and make recommendations.

At the end of the inquiry, we were able to confirm that at least 109 women were subjected to rape and other acts of sexual violence, including sexual mutilation and sexual slavery. Several women died of their wounds following particularly cruel sexual attacks. I heard the most horrific accounts of brutal sexual violence being perpetrated mainly by red berets as well as men in military uniform. We also confirmed 21 cases of sexual violence other than rape. I vividly remember the accounts of at least five women who were beaten in the abdomen and genital area with batons, clubs, rifle butts, knives and electrical cord. This was the turning point in my career with regard to my focus on the WPS agenda and conflict-related sexual violence.

With regard to my current position as USG and SRSG-SVC, I certainly bring all of this experience to bear in discharging my mandate, which focuses on integrating sexual violence prevention into global peace and security policy and advocating on behalf of the victims for law reform, justice and redress. My legal experience informs this political advocacy, which is aimed at changing norms, attitudes and behaviors, working closely with Governments, parties to armed conflict, national human rights and judicial institutions, local civil society networks, and traditional, customary and religious leaders, among other relevant stakeholders.


What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?

One main challenge that I faced was the gender bias in the legal profession in Mauritius. In 1982, it was a very male-dominated profession. I was the 3rd or 4th female barrister in private practice. There were approximately seven or eight others on the bench as Magistrates. Women clearly preferred to join the bench because it was hard to survive in private practice. This gender bias across the profession disturbed me a lot. As much as I was able to break taboos, forge my own niche in the corporate world, and have a significant portfolio of clients, the profession remained very biased. There were deeply entrenched stereotypes as to the role of women in the profession. I recall one very unpleasant incident with a Chief Justice whom I challenged through the media concerning a derogatory statement he had made about women’s “insignificant contribution” in the profession. 

Although I had to stand up against all of them and be firm and resolute, I cannot say that I have been very successful in tackling this challenge as up to now, the profession remains very biased despite the fact that it is no longer male-dominated. I tried to set up a Chapter of the International Federation of Jurists (FIDA) in Mauritius but I did not succeed. At the time, there was not yet a critical mass of women lawyers. Today we have made significant progress in terms of the number of women having joined the profession, but unfortunately, I cannot say that the profession is free from gender bias.

Another concrete example of the gender bias relates to the appointment of Senior Counsel which is a prerogative of the Chief Justice. A few years ago, along with another female barrister, we wrote to the Chief Justice to query his nomination of 16 men as Senior Counsel and asked him for clarity on his criteria for selection. It was only in 2017 that two women barristers were appointed Senior Counsel. By that time, I was already in New York and had taken up my new position.

Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?

Know your interest and passion. Human rights work can be extremely rewarding for people passionate about working for a better world, but it is also extremely demanding. It can also be a competitive field to enter and a highly diverse one too.  Therefore, you need to narrow down what area interests you most as you start to build your experience and expertise.

Develop people skills. If you aspire to become a sound human rights lawyer, you need some special skills. One of those skills is knowing how to speak and nourish relationships with people from all walks of life. If you are working on challenging discrimination and defending the rights of ordinary people, you need to be people-oriented. You need to like people and to spend time developing relationships with people who may have vastly different backgrounds from your own.

Take intellectual risks. Human rights lawyers are known for their intellectual curiosity and broad cultural education. Find creative ways of opening your mind - by reading, going to events, and travelling - for work and for pleasure. Be willing to put yourself at risk intellectually, to be proven wrong, and to grow in your perspective and your understanding of the issues. 

Create your own opportunities. The most interesting cases are not those who walk through the door. Progressing in your career requires creating spaces for opportunities to come into being. This is aided in your early career by working outside of your home environment: meet and connect with different people, build relationships, write.

You will need more than idealism. Most people come to this profession with the noble aim of changing the world. And they do, in valuable increments. At the same time, idealism is not enough. The realities of the work - bureaucracy, organisational politics, limited funding - risk deflating the soul whose intent on changing the world all at once. Some problems we are not going to solve in one person's lifetime. It is important to be driven by passion but also to be pragmatic about and to think critically about where and how you can have an impact. In the end it is those who blend idealism and pragmatism (with an important dose of self-care) who continue to be active and creative in the human rights’ field.

Making mentoring a priority. Once you move beyond your first step in your career, think about how you can help those who are a few paces behind you. Mentoring is not only for the most senior women in the profession - though it is important that we make mentoring a priority. For the relatively junior and mid-ranking people, particularly women in our field, you may have a better idea of the more modern challenges and solutions. Support and mentor others.

For more information about the Office of the Special Representative, please visit http://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/ and follow us on @endrapeinwar

Sareta Ashraph