Author: Sarah Nigg (Vienna Master of Human Rights) 


A little more than ten years ago, the United Nations (UN) Security Council adopted two resolutions aiming at eliminating conflict-related sexual violence. They affirm that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act regarding genocide. By this point, sexual violence had long been used as a systematic strategy of war in a large number of conflicts across the globe. In efforts eliminating sexual violence in conflict situations, however, one group of people often goes unnoticed: men and boys. Women and LGBT persons bare the majority of the burden but portraying sexual violence as an issue only concerning women and LGBT persons does not fully reflect reality.

Sexual violence against men and boys remains largely hidden. Such practices are particularly widespread in conflict and related detention contexts. In these settings, a large majority of detainees are male. Sexual violence against men and boys is often carried out to humiliate, degrade and punish detainees or as a way of forcefully eliciting information or confessions. A large number of reports by UN Special Rapporteurs, UN Expert Groups and non-governmental organisations describe such practices. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen for example describes a widespread use of sexual violence in conjunction with other forms of torture in several detention facilities across the country. Forms of sexual violence against male detainees include electrocution, burning, and beating of the genitals, forced nudity, threat of sterilisation, threats of rape, cases of rape, as well as detainees being forced to watch the rape of other detainees.  The All Supervisors Project identified the use of sexual violence against men and boys in conflict situations in 24 different countries.

If sexual violence against men and boys is used in such a widespread manner, why are so few cases reported? Survivors are often too afraid to do so. Reasons for this are diverse and may include the fear of reprisals. A major role is, however, played sexism and homophobia. In society, women and LGBT persons are often portrayed as opposites of the “ideal” human, the heterosexual and undoubtedly cisgender man. This polarisation goes hand in hand with the stereotyping of each group, including men. Due to their socio-hierarchical position, men are expected to be strong and in control of the situation at all times, contrary to the perception of women as victims. Falling victim to sexual violence contradicts these gender biases. Such instances often provoke shame and may even cause social exclusion.  Furthermore, in some regions and countries rape and sexual violence can legally only be committed against women. This places another major obstacle for the pursuit of accountability. Sexual orientation biases behave similarly. Heterosexual men are expected to very clearly perform their role as heterosexual men. If this is not the case, society rejects them, making them vulnerable for violence and social exclusion. Further, homophobia is often connected to sexist biases, drawing parallels between homosexuality and fulfilling a female role in society. The situation is even worse in regions and countries that criminalise same sex relations. In short, sexual violence against men and boys, usually committed by other men, triggers multiple forms of shame. On the one hand, the survivor is sexually submitted and dominated by another man. This pushes him into a typically female position. On the other hand, this constitutes to a homosexual act. Even though this is done in an involuntary manner, fear of homophobic responses and in certain regions even prosecution, are triggered. Sexual violence against men and boys therefore does not merely violate their bodies but also severely disrupts their mental health and social wellbeing.

The most effective way to prevent such human rights violations from happening is to ensure accountability. In order to combat impunity, however, the collection of data and reporting on cases on such practices is of vital importance. Larger biases and prejudice preventing male victims from reporting cases therefore need to be addressed to ensure accountability for survivors of sexual violence. New initiatives like the Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Detention Settings offer a systematic and more effective framework of standards to prevent such practices from continuing. The document was recently launched by the All Survivor Project at an event co-hosted by the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein in Geneva. It introduces ten principles that aim at preventing sexual violence in conflict and related detention settings, recognising them more effectively, ensuring accountability and remedies for survivors and providing them with medical and psychological support.

While it takes a long time to change society’s biases towards women and LGBT persons, principles like these can help change the situation for male survivors of sexual violence in the meantime. The Human Rights Council can play an important role in this. Some states already actively advocate for the elimination of sexual violence, including sexual violence against men and boys. It is vital for more states and other stakeholders to join in and to raise awareness of the issue. Of course, eliminating sexist and homophobic narratives will not stop violence against men from happening, but it will make it easier for survivors to come forward so that accountability can be ensured. Every person deserves to live a live without violence and discrimination and it is up to us to make this a reality.

Internship information

I am doing my internship with the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva, Switzerland. The Mission represents Liechtenstein at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva as well as at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Economic Free Trade Association (EFTA).

My tasks mainly involve supporting the team in the context of the Human Rights Council (HRC). I covered several resolutions and supported in the drafting of statements in the last session of the Council that took place in September and October. I further help prepare for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In addition, I regularly attend a number of webinars and meetings covering a broad range of human rights issues.