Eight years on from the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka, the country is grappling with the legacy of massive human rights abuses committed during the war. As it does so, sexual violence against men and boys has only recently been recognised as among the violations that took place. However, the issue remains little understood and responses have so far been even less adequate than for other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict.
Sri Lanka is not unique in this regard, but nevertheless represents an important example of how and why sexual violence against men and boys is committed in conflict settings, and the impact it has. It also presents opportunities to break the old pattern of denial that has been typical in many other conflict-affected countries. In particular, commitments by the government of Sri Lanka to establish various judicial and non-judicial transitional justice mechanisms could, if honoured, create an opportunity for developing the specialised structures, strategies, and capacities necessary to ensure that sexual violence against men and boys is appropriately addressed as part of broader transitional justice processes. The fact that sexual violence by state security forces in Sri Lanka against both males and females continues today, albeit at reduced levels, creates an added urgency to act.
Although this report focuses mainly on the 26-year-long conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and Tamil armed groups, principally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it also draws on experiences from the 1992-1995 armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) which was assessed at the time as having “taken sexual violence to new levels”. The response in BiH has been inadequate in many ways, ongoing efforts to provide redress for male and female survivors of sexual violence have delivered important lessons, both positive and negative, that are relevant to Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In both Sri Lanka and BiH, lack of documentation has proved to be a first and fundamental stumbling block to responding appropriately to sexual violence against men and boys, which is attributable in part to widespread lack of understanding and awareness of the issue.
In Sri Lanka, interviews conducted by All Survivors Project with lawyers, human rights defenders, medical professionals and others reveal significant confusion around the issue and a tendency to conflate sexual violence against men and boys with homosexuality. Consequently, even these frontline human rights defenders are ill-equipped to document or otherwise respond to the problem.
However, this confusion is rooted in much broader societal understandings and attitudes. Despite evidence suggesting that sexual abuse of boys is common in the context of sex tourism, schools, care homes, religious establishments and other similar settings in Sri Lanka, and that male-on-male sexual violence outside such settings is also not uncommon, the problem is buried under silence and denial.
But stigma and shame are far from being unique to Sri Lanka. Rigid masculinity norms and other forms of gender-stereotyping, while somewhat differently manifested, are also deeply entrenched in BiH and often cited as among the reasons that male survivors are unwilling to come forward. Rather than accepting under-reporting as an inevitable, the challenges faced in both BiH and Sri Lanka speak to the need for the development of gender-sensitive understandings of stigma and for specific strategies to encourage and support survivors of male sexual violence to speak out and seek assistance.
The still relatively few cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys in Sri Lanka that have been documented in detail nevertheless point to patterns of rape and other brutal forms of abuse. While these differ in some notable respects from the types of sexual violence perpetrated against males during the war in BiH, men and boys in both contexts were subjected to rape, genital violence, enforced nudity and other forms of sexual abuse, and in neither case, were these isolated incidents.
In both situations male detainees were, and in the case of Sri Lanka continue to be, at risk of sexual violence. In BiH, male rape and other forms of sexual violence typically occurred in the context of mass internment of civilians. In Sri Lanka, most reported cases of sexual violence against men are perpetrated during detention by state security forces under repressive anti-terror legislation. Although attention is also needed to other potential situations of vulnerability, effective safeguards to protect detainees from sexual violence should be a priority in both countries.
In Sri Lanka, a wholly inadequate legal framework also limits protection available to men and boys and undermines efforts to hold perpetrators to account. Sri Lankan law does not recognise and therefore does not proscribe male rape. Similarly, the prohibition of statutory rape applies only to girls (under the age of 16 years) and not to boys. Added to this is widespread discrimination, also enshrined in law, against homosexuals and the criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual acts, which may further discourage male survivors from reporting or accessing services for fear that they may be accused of homosexual activity and themselves be prosecuted.
In BiH, legal provisions regarding sexual violence against men are now more advanced, although still not completely adequate. Both international and national prosecutions of cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys have been important in bringing a degree of visibility to the issue, some accountability, and at the same time advancing international law and jurisprudence relating to sexual violence.
There are nevertheless other impediments to investigations and prosecutions in BiH that have direct parallels in Sri Lanka and affect the prospects for redress for male survivors in both contexts. Lack of effective protection for victims and witnesses has prevented male survivors from lodging official complaints and taking forward criminal proceedings in both Sri Lanka and Bosnia. Similarly, the absence of dedicated capacity and expertise within the justice sector to investigate and prosecute conflict-related sexual violence cases in both BiH and Sri Lanka continues to remain a significant barrier to justice.
Establishing criminal accountability is a priority but represents only one part of the necessary response. Survivors also need support services and have the right to reparations to ensure effective redress and enable their recovery and rehabilitation. However, this is not possible unless sexual violence against men and boys is acknowledged in law and survivors are protected and supported to come forward to seek medical and other services, as well as engage in truth-seeking, reparations programs and other transitional justice processes. Again, Sri Lanka has much to learn from BiH where truth-seeking processes that might have produced a more complete picture of sexual violence against men and boys have never got off the ground, and where male survivors are largely excluded from accessing reparations including because of poorly drafted legislation, a lack of adequate outreach to male survivors and arbitrary deadlines for applications.
In Sri Lanka, the proposed commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence represents an important opportunity to establish a fuller picture of sexual violence against men and boys and its impact, and therefore for harms to be addressed more fully. Likewise, the establishment of the planned reparations office offers the possibility of engaging and including survivors of sexual violence, both male and female from the start.
This report is the first in a planned series of reports on sexual violence against men and boys in different situations of armed conflict, past and present, to be published by All Survivors Project during the next four years. While it is premature to draw general conclusions based on a first case study, some provisional findings have already clearly emerged which have universal applicability and which also highlight immediate actions that are necessary in Sri Lanka to respond to past patterns of sexual violence against men and boys and to prevent and protect against their reoccurrence. These include:
- Laws relating to rape and other forms of sexual violence should provide legal protection to men and boys as well as women and girls.
- Legal safeguards should be enacted and implemented and other prevention measures taken to protect detainees from sexual violence and from torture and other forms of ill-treatment or punishment during arrest and detention.
- Transitional justice processes should recognise that men and boys have frequently been specifically targeted for sexual violence, and transitional justice mechanisms should be designed and implemented such that the differing but equally serious consequences of male and female sexual violence are addressed.
- Survivors of sexual violence should receive prompt treatment and support for physical and mental harms resulting from their treatment.