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Lost in translation: UN responses to sexual violence against men and boys in situations of armed conflict

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2010


This article considers the UN responses to sexual violence against men and boys in armed conflict – in particular, steps taken towards understanding this problem, measures of prevention and protection, and consequences for accused perpetrators. In so doing, the article assesses the state of knowledge and work in the field of male sexual violence and notes that although there have been many positive developments, the issue is not always moving in the right direction.

Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2010

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1 The initiative comprises twelve UN entities: DPA, DPKO, OCHA, OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WFP and WHO, see (last consultation 15 January 2010).

2 The UN Secretary-General has described the Resolution as setting an ‘important precedent by recognizing the links between sexual violence and sustainable peace and security’, S/PV.6195, 30 September 2009, p. 5, see (last consultation 15 January 2010). The Permanent Representative of the UK to the UN has described it as ‘a landmark step forward’: S/PV.6195, p. 9.

3 S/RES/1820, 2008, paras 2 and 15, see (last consultation 15 January 2010).

4 That children may be subjected to sexual violence is well-known. On the children/boys distinction, see paragraph ‘What of boys?’, below.

5 Gettleman, Jeffrey, ‘Symbol of Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims’, New York Times, 5 August 2009Google Scholar.

6 See e.g. Women, Peace and Security: Study submitted by the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), United Nations, 2002, p. 16, para. 59, see (last consultation 15 January 2010).

7 Annex to the letter dated 4 June 2008 from the Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, S/2008/364, 4 June 2008, pp. 3–4.

8 Sporadic references may be found in earlier work; however, detailed, focused, analyses only began to emerge in the 2000s. See Dubravka Zarkov, ‘The Body of the Other Man: Sexual Violence and the Construction of Masculinity, Sexuality and Ethnicity in Croatian Media’, in Moser and Clark (eds), Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence, 2001, p. 72; Augusta DelZotto and Adam Jones, ‘Male-on-Male Sexual Violence in Wartime: Human Rights’ Last Taboo?', Paper presented to the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, 23–27 March 2002, available at (last consultation 15 January 2010); Sandesh Sivakumaran, ‘Male/Male Rape and the “Taint” of Homosexuality’, Human Rights Quarterly 1274, 2005, vol. 27; Carpenter, R. Charli, ‘Recognizing Gender-Based Violence Against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations’, Security Dialogue, 2006, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 83103CrossRefGoogle Scholar; S. Sivakumaran, ‘Sexual Violence against Men in Armed Conflict’, 2007, vol. 18, no. 2, European Journal of International Law, pp. 253–276; Wynne Russell, ‘Sexual violence against men and boys’, Forced Migration Review, 2007, no. 27, pp. 22–23; Dustin A. Lewis, ‘Unrecognized Victims: Sexual Violence against Men in Conflict Settings under International Law’, Wisconsin Journal of International Law, 2009, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 1–49. For an early account, see Adam Jones, ‘Gender and Ethnic Conflict in ex-Yugoslavia’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1994, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 115–134.

9 DelZotto and Jones, ibid.

10 Zarkov, above note 8.

11 Security Council, 5916th Meeting, 19 June 2008, S/PV.5916, p. 33 (Ms Stiglic, Slovenia).

12 Security Council, 6180th Meeting, 7 August 2009, S/PV.6180, p. 14 (Mr Heller, Mexico).

13 General Assembly, Official Records, 19 November 2007, A/62/PV.53, p. 24 (Mrs Juul, Norway).

14 Economic and Social Council, Substantive Session of 2006, Humanitarian Affairs Segment, 17 July 2006, E/2006/SR.28, p. 3 (Ms Feller).

15 Stop Rape Now: UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

16 WHO, Preventing violence and reducing its impact: How development agencies can help, WHO, Geneva, 2008, p. 21.

17 Report of the Secretary-General, ‘Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women’, A/64/151, 17 July 2009, para. 38.

18 Elisabeth Jean Wood, ‘Variation in Sexual Violence during War’, Politics and Society, 2006, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 307–341.

19 SC Res 1820, operative para. 15, above note 3.

20 Wood, above note 18, pp. 318–320.

21 Chris McGreal, ‘Hundreds of thousands of women raped for being on the wrong side’, The Guardian, 12 November 2007 (4%); Médecins Sans Frontières, Shattered Lives: Immediate medical care vital for sexual violence victims, March 2009, p. 11 (6%); Gettleman, above note 5 (10%).

22 IRIN News, ‘Central African Republic: Unending Misery of Rape Victims’, Bangui, 19 August 2005.

23 Željka Mudrovčić, ‘Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Post-Conflict Regions: The Bosnia and Herzegovina Case’ in The Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Girls: A Consultative Meeting on Mainstreaming Gender in Areas of Conflict and Reconstruction, UNFPA, 2001, pp. 60–76 (see p. 64).

24 Johnson, Kirsten et al. , ‘Association of Combatant Status and Sexual Violence with Health and Mental Health Outcomes in Postconflict Liberia’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008, vol. 300, no. 6, pp. 676690.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

25 See above notes 11 and 12.

26 Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 357 pp.

27 Thomas and Thomas in Richard A. Falk (eds), The International Law of Civil War, 1971, p. 124; Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, Basic Books, 1997, 290 pp., see pp. 88–89, 95.

28 ‘The Nature, Scope and Motivation for Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Armed Conflict’, Use of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Identifying Gaps in Research to Inform More Effective Interventions, UN OCHA Research Meeting, 26 June 2008, p. 1.

29 International Criminal Court, Office of the Prosecutor, Background: Situation in the Central African Republic, 22 May 2007, ICC-OTP-BN-20070522-220-A_EN. See also IRIN News, ‘Central African Republic: Unending Misery of Rape Victims’, Bangui, 19 August 2005.

30 Franchetti, Mark, ‘Russian Death Squads “Pulverise” Chechens’, The Sunday Times, 26 April 2009.Google Scholar

31 Chris McGreal, ‘Hundreds of thousands of women raped for being on the wrong side’, The Guardian, 12 November 2007; Gettleman, above note 5.

32 Richard Norton-Taylor and Audrey Gillan, ‘MoD faces legal action after teenage Iraqi claims sexual humiliation by soldiers’, The Guardian, 14 July 2008; R. Norton-Taylor, ‘Lawyers take MoD to court over Iraqi mutilation claims’, The Guardian, 18 October 2007.

33 Somini Sengupta, ‘Sri Lanka's Scars Trace Lines of War Without End’, New York Times, 15 June 2007.

34 ‘Egypt torture centre, report says’, BBC News online, 11 April 2007.

35 Alan Cowell, ‘Rapes are Alleged in Iranian Prison’, New York Times, 11 August 2009.

36 Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence, final Report, chapter 6, see (last consultation 15 January 2010).

37 Meeting Report, OCHA – Policy Development and Studies Branch, ‘Use of Sexual Violence in Conflict: Identifying Research Priorities to Inform More Effective Interventions’, 26 June 2008, p. 5. The author was one of the experts.

38 Ibid, p. 6.

39 Goetz, Anne-Marie, ‘Introduction’, in Women Targeted or Affected by Armed Conflict: What Role for Military Peacekeepers? Wilton Park, 27–29 May 2008, p. 3Google Scholar.

40 Ibid., p. 4 (emphases removed).

41 Ibid.

42 I am grateful to Jocelyn Kelly for this information.

43 Sivakumaran, Sexual Violence, above note 8, pp. 255–256.

44 Ibid, p. 271; ‘Kivu Sexual Violence: Against Women and Men’, in PeaceWomen, available at http://www.peacewomen.orgnews/DRC/July04/kivu.html (last consultation 18 January 2010).

45 Gettleman, above note 5.

46 See also operative paras 6, 7, 13.

47 Ibid, para. 3.

48 Ibid, para. 4.

49 Leaving aside, for the moment, issues such as ‘helpless and sexualised representations of women’, on which see Diane Otto, ‘The Exile of Inclusion: Reflections on Gender Issues in International Law over the Last Decade’ (2009), Melbourne Journal of International Law, vol. 11, no. 1, p. 25.

50 ‘Sexual violence against women in armed conflict’, Resolution 1670 and Recommendation 1873, texts adopted by the Standing Committee, acting on behalf of the Assembly, on 29 May 2009.

51 Operative para. 5.

52 Ibid, para. 8.

53 Ibid, para. 9.

54 Ibid, para. 3.

55 Otto, above note 49. To this could be added, what of the specific international humanitarian law provisions on evacuation?

56 Preambular paras 7 and 8.

57 The exception is contained in operative para. 3.

58 See Lewis, above note 8, p. 19, fn 94.

59 See e.g. OCHA Meeting Report, above note 37, p. 5; Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, A/64/254, 6 August 2009, para. 17.

60 Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Afghanistan, S/2008/695, 10 November 2008, para. 48.

61 Ibid, para. 50.

62 Ibid, para. 74.

63 Otto, above note 49.

64 The point was made by Wynne Russell at the OCHA meeting.

65 See S/Res/1882, adopted by the Security Council at its 6176th meeting, 4 August 2009; Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, above note 59, para. 17.

66 See e.g. M. Peel et al., ‘The Sexual Abuse of Men in Detention in Sri Lanka’, in The Lancet, 2000, vol. 355, issue 9220, p. 2069; Prosecutor v. Blagoje Simić, Miroslav Tadić and Siom Zarić, 2003, Trial Judgement, IT-95-9-T, para. 728; the ‘Taguba Report’ on Treatment of Abu Ghraib Prisoners in Iraq, available at: (last consultation 18 January 2010).

67 Russell, above note 8, p. 22; Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, above note 59, para. 17.

68 Cape Town Principles and Best Practices, adopted at the UNICEF Symposium on the Prevention of Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and on Demobilization and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in Africa, Cape Town, South Africa, 27–30 April 1997 (emphasis added).

69 The Paris Principles: The Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated With Armed Forces of Armed Groups, 2007, para. 2.1 (emphasis added).

70 Johnson et al., above note 24, p. 676.

71 Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council resolution 1820 (2008), S/2009/362, paras 3 and 6.

72 S/Res/1888, adopted by the Security Council at its 6195th meeting, 2009, operative paras 4, 8 and 10, respectively.

73 Ibid, operative paras 12 and 26.

74 Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Afghanistan, above note 60, para. 63.

75 See e.g. Binaifeer Nowrojee, ‘Your Justice is Too Slow’: Will the ICTR Fail Rwanda's Rape Victims? UNRISD, 2005; Michelle S. Kelsall and Shanee Stepakoff, ‘“When We Wanted to Talk about Rape”: Silencing Sexual Violence at the Special Court for Sierra Leone’, in International Journal of Transitional Justice, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 355–374.

76 See e.g. Final Report of the United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992), S/1994/674/Add.2, Annex IX (former Yugoslavia); Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu (eds), The Men Who Killed Me – Rwanda Survivors of Sexual Violence, 2009, p. 91; ‘“We'll Kill You if You Cry”: Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict’, Human Rights Watch, 2003, vol. 15, no. 1, p. 42.

77 Sivakumaran, ‘Sexual Violence against Men in Armed Conflict’, above note 8, p. 256.

78 Simić Trial Judgement, above note 66, para. 728.

79 Ibid, subheading on page 205 and para. 772.

80 Leiby, Michele, ‘Digging in the Archives: The Promise and Perils of Primary Documents’, in Politics and Society, vol. 37, 2009, pp. 8283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

81 Prosecutor v. Bagosora et al., Case No. ICTR-98-41-T, 18 December 2008, Judgement, para. 1908.

82 Prosecutor v. Sesay et al., Case No. SCSL-04-15-T, Judgement, 2 March 2009, paras 1205, 1207–8.

83 Ibid, para. 146.

84 Ibid, paras 1303 and 1308.

85 Prosecutor v. Muhimana, Case No. ICTR-95-1-T, Judgement, 28 April 2005, paras 441–4.

86 Ibid, paras 448–50.

87 Bagosora Trial Judgement, above note 81, para. 2224.

88 Ibid, para. 2220, fn 2374.

89 Buss, Doris E., ‘Rethinking “Rape as a Weapon of War”’, Feminist Legal Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2009, pp. 145 and 159CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

90 Prosecutor v. Eliézer Niyitegeka, Case No. ICTR-96-14-T, 16 May 2003, paras 462–466, 467.

91 Prosecutor v. Todorovic, Case No. IT-95-9/1-S, Sentencing Judgement, 31 July 2001, subheading at page 13.

92 Prosecutor v. Stakić, Case No. IT-97-24-T, Judgement, 31 July 2003, paras 241, 780, 806.

93 Prosecutor v. Češić, Case No. IT-95-10/1-S, Sentencing Judgement, 11 March 2004, para. 13.

94 Ibid, subheading on page 4; see also paras 33, 35, 52.

95 Office of the Prosecutor, Background: Situation in the Central African Republic, ICC-OTP-BN-20070522-220-A_EN, 22 May 2007.

96 Situation in the Central African Republic: In the Case of the Prosecutor v. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, Public Redacted Version of the Amended Document containing the charges filed on 30 March 2009, ICC-01/05-01/08, Counts 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, respectively.

97 Ibid, Charges, para. 39.

98 Ibid, para. 41.

99 The Trust Fund for Victims Board of Directors Donor Appeal, ‘Rehabilitating and Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence’, 10 September 2008.

100 Ibid.

101 See also the research agenda in OCHA Meeting Report, above note 37.

102 Statement by Yakin Ertürk at the SIDA Conference on Gender-Based Violence, 12 September 2008, Stockholm.

103 T. Bouta, G. Frerks and I. Bannon, Gender, Conflict, and Development (World Bank, Washington DC, 2005), p. 47.