Last week, the Associated Press published an explosive report documenting more than 50 Tamil men’s allegations that Sri Lanka’s security forces sexually assaulted and tortured them. Their accounts of gang rape, sexual humiliation, and penetration with barbed wire are supported by medical records and psychiatric evaluations. The details are stomach-turning. The news broke at an inconvenient time for Sri Lanka, which is up for its Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council this week. The government delegation’s assurances of a “zero tolerance policy” on torture sat awkwardly alongside reports of abuses so shocking that one career human rights investigator described them as “the most egregious and perverted that I’ve ever seen.”
But it’s not just the brutality of the assaults that stands out; it’s their routine nature. Because, unsettlingly, these allegations are not anomalous. In 2016, the British organization Freedom from Torture reported that 71 percent of its predominantly male Tamil clients said they had been raped or endured other sexual torture. Given the stigma that conservative Tamil culture attaches to rape, male victims have a strong incentive to remain silent about such crimes. The actual incidence is likely to be even higher than the reported rate.
Why would Sri Lankan security forces rape and torture Tamil men?
Sri Lanka is ostensibly a country at peace, eight years out from the end of its bloody civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgency that fought for an independent state for the Tamil ethnic minority. Sri Lanka today is also a democracy, one whose turn away from authoritarianism over the last two years has been enthusiastically welcomed by the international community. And yet, members of a marginalized ethnic minority are reporting ongoing sexual assault and torture by the state.
How can we make sense of such appalling crimes, committed in a supposedly “post-conflict” context by a member in good standing of the community of nations?
Violence doesn’t necessarily stop when war ends. Local conflict may survive a national peace agreement; demobilized groups may take up arms again; the return of refugees may cause tensions; and levels of violent crime may increase. Sexual violence, too, may persist or even increase; wartime trauma and the absence of rule of law can foster high levels of intimate partner and opportunistic violence.
But it’s not just that the monopoly of violence can remain fractured long after the formal cessation of hostilities. State violence itself may continue. From Guatemala to Nepal, heavily militarized security sectors often remain in place after a civil war — leading to continuing abuses.
In Sri Lanka, the government invokes the possibility of LTTE resurgence to justify heavy militarization of the former war zone. A recent mapping exercise estimated that in one district, there was at least one soldier present for every two civilians. Tamils living in these areas suffer ongoing surveillance and harassment by the security forces. And white van abductions and torture of those suspected of links to the LTTE continue to this day.
Wartime impunity for sexual assault is lingering into peacetime
Wartime rape has also carried over. While the Sri Lankan civil war is often cited as having had a relatively low incidence of sexual violence, that’s because, unusually, such violence was committed primarily by one side only. The LTTE vigorously enforced a strict policy against sexual abuse of civilians and controlled territory for long periods of time, limiting the military’s access to Tamil civilians.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s state forces committed sexual assault habitually — when stopping civilians at military checkpoints, against captured female combatants whose fates are recorded in horrifying trophy videos, in government-operated “displacement camps” where women and girls were easy prey, during the post-war occupation of Tamil communities and against Haitian children while deployed as U.N. peacekeepers. Rape and sexual torture of men was documented as far back as 2000, when a study in the The Lancet found that one in five Tamil men detained by state forces reported being sexually assaulted while in custody.
Much of the sexual violence described above was likely committed opportunistically, by individuals or small groups taking advantage of a permissive environment. But the violations reported in the AP article sound alarmingly routine.
In a human rights report that provides more detail, survivors describe conversations between interrogators about applying the “normal treatment.” Some recall the presence of members of both the police and the military as well as senior officers. Most tellingly, individuals detained at different locations describe strikingly similar torture chambers, suggesting that these assaults are not just routine but standardized.
To date, the military perpetrators of only one post-war rape and two wartime incidents have been convicted. And Sri Lanka has failed entirely to punish any of its peacekeeping troops for their crimes in Haiti.
Are Sri Lankan commanders ordering their officers to rape Tamil detainees?
These details raise the disturbing possibility that Sri Lankan commanders are ordering their men to rape male detainees as part of their counter-insurgency strategy. It’s also possible that this is opportunistic sexual assault on an epidemic level, facilitated by a culture of aggressive impunity.
The distinction matters. Widespread opportunistic rape might be stopped by a significant commitment from the state to reforming the security sector and punishing the perpetrators. But that’s not a solution to top-down, systematic violence. And confusing one for the other will produce the wildly illogical result of expecting those who are ordering the abuses to put in the heroic effort necessary to stamp them out.
Sri Lanka has made extensive promises on human rights and accountability to the international community. Its officials reiterated these commitments, but delivery is long overdue. Despite its promise to prosecute war crimes, the government continues to assure its troops that they will never face justice. And the upcoming UPR report will detail serious human rights violations. Yet members of the international community continue to treat Sri Lanka like a good faith actor, restoring preferential trade arrangements and deepening military partnerships.
This approach rests on an assumption that partial progress will lead to real change. The ongoing rape and sexual torture of Tamil men in detention suggests otherwise.
Kate Cronin-Furman is a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow her on Twitter at @kcroninfurman.