In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has found evidence of widespread sexual violence committed against women, men and children by all parties to the conflict. From the onset of conflict in November 2020 to July 2021, health facilities across the region received reports of sexual and gender-based violence from more than 2,200 survivors.
In Ukraine, allegations of rape by Russian soldiers continue to mount. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights has received reports of 124 alleged acts of conflict-related sexual violence, mostly against women and girls.
The physical and psychological harm inflicted by sexual violence has shattering effects on the lives of survivors. It is a crime that rips at the social fabric of affected communities and societies at large, having lasting impacts during peacetime.
The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on 19 June signified an important call to recognise these crimes, enhance accountability, and acknowledge and meet the needs of survivors.
Renewing our commitment to eliminating sexual violence in conflict goes hand-in-hand with ensuring justice for survivors in peacetime. The latest UN Security Council resolution on conflict-related sexual violence calls for holistic, survivor-centred approaches to the prevention of and response to violations.
Transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions have an important role in shedding light on these horrific crimes and providing justice and redress for survivors in the wake of conflict.
Conflict-related sexual violence constitutes a war crime under international law and is included as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in 2002. Nevertheless, the continued invisibility of these crimes and impunity for perpetrators remain pervasive, making their recurrence more likely.
Sexual violence and exploitation rise in conflict settings as perpetrators take advantage of the collapse of social order and governance structures. Often, such crimes are committed with impunity. In many cases, sexual violence becomes widespread and systematic as a tactic of terror, torture and displacement by warring factions. Victims may be members of a persecuted political, ethnic or religious group, or targeted based on gender or sexual orientation.
Sexual violence is spurred by gender inequality and patriarchal norms that are exacerbated by militarisation and conditions of conflict. Women and girls remain disproportionately targeted, but men and boys are victims, too.
Intersecting identities like sexual orientation and gender expression may also place LGBTQI+ people at high risk of abuses. In 2021, violations against men and boys were documented in almost all 18 countries covered by the UN secretary-general’s report on conflict-related sexual violence. Sexual violence against people targeted as LGBTQI+ was reported in detention settings in Colombia and Myanmar.
As awareness increases on the severity of these crimes and the gendered experiences of conflict, so do the global expectations for states to address sexual and gender-based violence in post-conflict and post-authoritarian settings. An ongoing study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation shows that truth commissions can act as a key post-conflict response to sexual violence.
Truth commissions are created to investigate and establish past human rights violations and recommend measures for accountability and redress. These institutions can play a strong role in documenting and creating awareness of sexual abuses, providing support and a platform for survivors to report and speak about their experiences, and making recommendations to the state on reparative measures and prevention of future violations.
Many truth commissions, including South Africa’s seminal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, failed to address sexual violence. More contemporary commissions in Africa, such as those of Sierra Leone (2004), Liberia (2009), Kenya (2015) and Tunisia (2019), have shown commendable attention to sexual violence in their reports and recommendations, with particular focus on the experiences of women and girls.
However, there has been a notable failure of truth commissions to recognise and meet the needs of men and boys, including LGBTQI+ survivors.
The prevalence and impact of sexual violence against male survivors and/including LGBTQI+ people is severely underestimated and overlooked in conflict-affected settings. Harmful social and cultural norms around masculinity and/or sexual orientation contribute to this. In some countries, domestic laws fail to acknowledge these groups as victims of sexual violence.
As national bodies operating in local contexts, truth commissions can play a role in addressing harmful gender norms and stigma associated with sexual violence in their specific contexts. They are also important mechanisms for identifying gaps in domestic law and recommending legal reforms to promote access to justice for survivors.
Addressing the gender dynamics and experiences of conflict-related sexual violence is integral to tackling its root causes and making recommendations for redress and prevention. Without deprioritising attention to women and girls, equal acknowledgement must be given to men and boys, and/including LGBTQI+ people as victims of sexual violence.
Future truth commissions need to adopt approaches that are sensitive to the diversity of survivors, their experiences and material and psychosocial needs. Recommendations that are gender-sensitive and based on consultation with survivors have the potential to meet these needs, as well as tackle the structural and social factors that enable sexual violence in conflict.
At the same time, states need to commit to implementation. Even in cases where recommendations on sexual violence were comprehensive, limited resources and a lack of political will have hampered implementation and left survivors’ needs unmet. Truth commissions’ reports and recommendations should be treated as a foundation for longer-term mobilisation by civil society to raise awareness, advocate for accountability and accelerate the delivery of justice and reparation.
The elimination of sexual violence in conflict cannot be realised without uprooting the harmful gender norms that act as a catalyst for these heinous crimes. By ensuring gender sensitivity and putting survivors first, truth commissions can serve as significant mechanisms for promoting meaningful redress and preventing future violations in post-conflict societies. DM