Remarks of UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten, side event: Responding to Sexual Violence in the Context of Detention, 8 October 2019, New York

Excellencies, co-sponsors, distinguished guests,

I would like to thank the All Survivors Project for organizing this side-event on a critical, yet often hidden, subject, namely sexual violence against men and boys in the context of detention.

Indeed, many of the cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys that are monitored by my mandate, occur in situations of detention and interrogation. In such settings, sexual violence is often used as a tool to break morale, weaken resistance to questioning, extract information, and force confessions. Sexual assault, forced nudity, and threats and harassment of a sexual nature often accompany other forms of torture and ill-treatment during questioning. Sexual violence is also used as a tool of punishment, humiliation and dehumanization. In some contexts, it takes the form of intrusive body searches and other abuses of power by corrections personnel; there are also cases of detainees abused by other detainees in overcrowded and poorly-managed facilities; and often, detainees are sexually exploited and abused in exchange for vital supplies in contexts of extreme scarcity.

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We know that when it comes to monitoring and reporting: “One only sees what one is looking for”. Accordingly, over the past decade, my Office has included very specific questions about sexual violence against men and boys in the information request that we send to the field to inform our reports. Nonetheless, the data we receive has been extremely limited. Sexual violence against men and boys — including rape, sexual torture, mutilation, castration, sexual humiliation, forced incest, forced rape, and sexual enslavement — remains a real, yet chronically underreported, feature of armed conflicts around the globe.

Despite the paucity of data, successive annual Reports of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, compiled by my Office since 2009, have included cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys in detention settings in Syria, Libya, Sri Lanka and Iraq. For instance, we have reported on patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence, including genital mutilation, committed against men and boys in detention settings by the Syrian Government and associated militias.

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Everywhere I have traveled, I have seen that survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are not a homogeneous group; they require tailored services and interventions.

To cite just one example: last September, I visited a transit center in Niger, where I met several men who had been sexually abused in detention facilities in Libya. In one case, a survivor of trafficking from Sudan mentioned having been sexually abused in a Libyan facility while he was still a minor.

Migrants are a particularly vulnerable category of detainee, as they may face a heightened risk of sexual abuse due to a lack of legal protections, resources, and social safety networks. Often, they arrive in third countries seeking refuge, but instead encounter renewed patterns of sexual violence and predation.

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Men and boys face specific barriers to reporting sexual violence owing to factors such as:

  • Cultural taboos, stigma and harmful social norms around gender identity that may associate rape with emasculation. In many cultures, masculinity is constructed in such a way that it is more shameful to be a victim of rape than it is to be a perpetrator. This misplaced shame and victim-blame breed silence, which allows impunity to thrive.
  • Another factor is the lack of legal protection, with over 60 countries still omitting male victims from the scope of sexual violence legislation, and some restricting the prohibition on statutory rape to underage girls.
  • In addition, there are fears of ostracism and persecution linked with accusations of homosexuality, in particular in countries where all same-sex relations are criminalized. Such laws unfortunately exist in over 70 countries and have a chilling effect on reporting and response.

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Through the adoption in April of resolution 2467, the UN Security Council has stated that prevention, protection and relief efforts must address all survivors – women, girls, men and boys. This resolution – for the first time – shines a light on “hidden” victims. For instance, operative paragraph 28 affirms that men and boys who have been victims of sexual violence, including in detention settings, should have access to national relief and reparations programmes, as well as to comprehensive services. It further calls for efforts to lift the sociocultural stigma attached to this category of crime and to facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration efforts.

Furthermore, operative paragraph 32 recognizes that men and boys are targets of sexual violence in conflict-affected settings, including in the context of detention and within armed groups. It urges Member States to strengthen policies to ensure appropriate responses and to challenge cultural assumptions and stereotypes about male invulnerability.

These provisions must now be swiftly translated into concrete measures.

The urgency of ensuring comprehensive health services for all survivors, including psychosocial and legal support, could not be more acute. This is at the heart of the survivor-centered approach that I articulated as a priority for my mandate upon taking Office in 2017. Such an approach starts with listening to the voices of survivors. From early in my tenure, I have provided a platform to both male and female survivors to help amplify their voices in UN and other policy forums, and I see this as an important aspect of my advocacy role.

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If we are ever to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place, we must confront the unacceptable reality that it is still largely “cost-free” to rape a woman, man or child in armed conflicts around the world.

To turn the tide, we must increase the costs and consequences for those who commit, command or condone sexual violence in conflict. It is time to translate promises into practice, and resolutions into solutions. It is time to bring these crimes, and those who commit them, into the spotlight of international scrutiny and to send a clear message that the world will not tolerate the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism.

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My mandate, established a decade ago, was premised on the paradigm shift from treating sexual violence as “exclusively a women’s issue” to understanding it as a Protection of Civilians concern and a threat to collective security. Without ever minimizing the rights and needs of women and girls, we strive to reflect the full reality of conflict-related sexual violence, namely that: women are not only victims, and they are not the only victims. Indeed, in all of our advocacy and action, we draw upon the gender-inclusive framing of sexual violence found in international criminal law.

Because whether it is wielded against women, girls, men or boys, sexual violence is always an expression of unequal power relations. In contexts of detention, this power dynamic is particularly pronounced, as detainees have limited autonomy, a high-degree of dependence, and exist in circumstances that are inherently coercive.

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Sexual violence in detention is shockingly pervasive, but it is not inevitable. Detaining authorities have both the ability and responsibility to prevent it. This can be done in three key ways:

  • By ensuring the effective management and oversight of detention facilities;
  • Through the vetting and training of corrections personnel; and
  • By ensuring accountability for abuses of power, and providing victims with safe avenues for reporting, as well as with physical and psychological support. In this respect, access to places of detention for humanitarian actors and human rights monitors can provide an essential “lifeline” for persons deprived of their freedom.

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In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that human dignity demands respect for the right to physical integrity – and that right is universal.

As we work to consign sexual violence to the past, we must continually work to give all survivors a better, brighter future.

Thank you.