2016 – Year in Review

The past year has been incredibly tumultuous, having reset the international stage and delivering incredibly unexpected political outcomes. From an international legal perspective, while events such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, and the crisis in Syria have undoubtedly raised important legal questions and will likely change international law in the future, there have been numerous other significant developments.

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Recognising male victims of sexual violence in war: the UN Security Council and ad hoc tribunals – Richard Hughes

Australia has provided steadfast support for the UN’s agenda on women, peace and security, ever since the landmark Resolution 1325. This agenda has done much to shine light on the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls in times of war. But what about the male victims – where do they fit into the picture?


Resolution 1325, passed unanimously in 2000, marked the beginning of the Security Council’s direct engagement with the issues of gender and sexual violence in armed conflict and has since served as the organising framework for the UN’s agenda on women, peace and security. The Security Council has subsequently passed a number of related resolutions on sexual violence, but only one resolution makes mention of male victims. Resolution 2106 notes that sexual violence in armed conflict “disproportionately affects women and girls, as well as groups that are particularly vulnerable or may be specifically targeted, while also affecting men and boys and those secondarily traumatized as forced witnesses of sexual violence against family members”. Evidently, there is a conceptual difficulty associated with including the male experience in an agenda otherwise focused on women and girls, and it seems that the best the Security Council has been able to do is include a passing mention.

In Resolution 1820, the Security Council notes that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group”. But the effects of sexual violence as a weapon of war are equally devastating when men and boys are targeted. In the same resolution, the Security Council also “[d]emands that all parties to armed conflict immediately take appropriate measures to protect civilians, including women and girls, from all forms of sexual violence, which could include … debunking myths that fuel sexual violence”. It is not clear exactly what the Security Council has in mind here, which leaves the impression that it is simply making a throwaway comment. A more detailed consideration of the myths fuelling sexual violence would help to shine light on both female and male experiences of sexual violence.

From the perspective of male victims, Resolution 1888 poses another issue. It “[e]ncourages leaders at the national and local level, including traditional leaders where they exist and religious leaders, to play a more active role in sensitising communities on sexual violence to avoid marginalisation and stigmatization of victims, to assist with their social reintegration and to combat a culture of impunity for these crimes”. But traditional and religious leaders are often highly complicit in conservative attitudes, which marginalise and stigmatise male victims of sexual violence. For this reason, the implication that they simply sit back and fail to do enough may misconceive their existing role, as well as their personal attitudes to male victims of sexual violence generally. In the Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council on conflict-related sexual violence, he made a similar recommendation to Member States and regional organisations “[t]o support the engagement of religious leaders … with the objective of curbing violent extremism, preventing the justification of sexual or other violence on religious grounds and addressing the stigmatisation suffered by survivors of sexual violences”. This recommendation appears to be worded in a slightly more appropriate way.

A cynic may note that Security Council resolutions are, by their nature, typically broad in scope and worded in such a way as to secure support from a diverse number of countries and (most importantly) all five permanent members of the Security Council. At any given time, at least some member states on the Security Council are probably unwilling to discuss male victims of sexual violence in a meaningful way.

However, this has not been an insurmountable problem. The Security Council has done more for male victims of sexual violence in armed conflict through resolutions establishing ad hoc international criminal tribunals than it has through resolutions under the agenda on women, peace and security. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) has led the way in handling sexual violence in armed conflict under international law, despite the fact that it is only an ad hoc tribunal with strict geographic and temporal limits. Numerous cases before the ICTY have made specific mention of sexual violence against males during the Yugoslav Wars. For example, Prosecutor v Brđanin (Judgement), Prosecutor v Krajišnik (Judgement), and Prosecutor v Martič (Judgement) all make mention of sexual violence against males, often in the context of discussing sexual abuse or rape generally. In Prosecutor v Mucić (Judgement), the Chamber also noted that an act of forced fellatio between two men could have constituted rape “for which liability could have been found if pleaded in the appropriate manner”.

These cases have undoubtedly helped to shine light on inhuman and politically inconvenient wartime events. But it has not been smooth sailing. The current Deputy Prosecutor of the ICTY, Michelle Jarvis, has recently acknowledged that the Prosecution missed some opportunities to characterise sexual violence against males as rape. This reflects a wider issue before international criminal tribunals: the comparatively easier route of treating males as victims of torture or some form of ill-treatment other than sexual violence.

This approach follows, as a matter of course, in the judgments. For example, in Prosecutor v Tadić (Opinion and Judgement) – the very first case before the ICTY – the indictment included charges for “persecution, inhuman treatment, cruel treatment, rape … torture [and] wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body and health”. The incident in which one detainee in the Omarska Camp was forced to bite off the testicles of another detainee was subsumed by the Chamber under “inhuman treatment, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body and health, cruel treatment and inhumane acts”, seemingly because it could not be classified as rape (the only charge of an explicitly sexual nature in the indictment). Although the subsumption of crimes of sexual violence under different categories may provide them with an important threshold of seriousness, it will still prevent the adequate prosecution of these offences.

Sandesh Sivakumaran, one of the first legal scholars to focus in depth on male victims of sexual violence in armed conflict, has developed an insightful framework for understanding how sexual violence against men has been handled in the ad hoc tribunals. It may have been: (i) mentioned but not characterised as sexual violence, (ii) mentioned and characterised appropriately, but without any consequences attaching or (iii) mentioned and characterised appropriately, with consequences arising therefrom. The first category would include the Tadić incident explained above, as well as an incident mentioned in Prosecutor v Simić (Judgement), where a police truncheon was rammed up the anus of a detainee. The Simić incident was explained under a sub-heading of the judgment titled “Evidence relevant to other acts”, which came under a chapter of the judgment entitled “Beatings, Torture, Forced Labour and Confinement under Inhumane Conditions”. The problem with this approach is that it does nothing to show the susceptibility of males to sexual violence, clearest when males are in detention and at their most vulnerable. The second category highlights judgements which carry the risk of insinuating that the sexual violence that occurred is not overly important when compared to other harms suffered. The third category is the clearly the most appropriate. An example is the approach taken in Prosecutor v Češić (Sentencing Judgement), which included an account of two Muslim brothers detained at Luka Camp and forced at gunpoint to perform fellatio on one another in the presence of camp guards. This incident was ultimately categorised as “sexual assault, constituting a crime against humanity (rape) and a violation of the laws or customs of war (humiliating and degrading treatment)”, to which the Accused pled guilty.

How do we explain the different approaches taken when the facts of a case show incidents of sexual violence? There is probably no satisfactory answer to this. Firstly, it must be appreciated that it was only with the creation of ad hoc tribunals in the 1990s that sexual violence was prosecuted under international law for the first time since World War II (sexual violence was not prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials, but it was at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, following the “Rape of Nanking”). Secondly, attitudes towards and understanding of sexual violence against males are continuing to evolve. Thirdly, there have been 86 permanent or ad litem judges appointed to the ICTY since its inception and they have come from all corners of the world and from both sides of the traditional common law-civil law jurisdictional divide. This makes consistency in the prosecution and judgment of cases very hard to expect.

Consideration of sexual violence against males within the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s (“ICTR”) jurisprudence is much more limited than that of the ICTY. This could be reflective of a lower incidence of sexual violence against males during the Rwandan Genocide than during the Yugoslav Wars, but this cannot be determined with any authority in the absence of adequate information. In Prosecutor v Niyitegeka (Judgement and Sentence), an act of castration and hanging of the victim’s genitals on a spike was not characterised as sexual violence, possibly because it was deemed unnecessary to do so (given that the victim had already been killed and decapitated). Yet when dealing with the same count of the indictment, entitled “Crimes Against Humanity (Other Inhumane Acts)”, the Chamber did make mention of “sexual violence on the body of [a] dead woman”. This peculiar difference suggests an inability to conceive of castration by a male perpetrator as sexual violence. Consider also a harrowing account of the violence that occurred in a church in Prosecutor v Bagosora (Judgement and Sentence). Castration took place yet again and men (including priests and military observers) were forced to watch as women were raped and killed, with gendarmes beating the men with rifle butts if they averted their eyes. All aspects of their mistreatment in this scenario could be considered as sexual violence, but the Chamber did not treat the male experience in the same way. Although sexual violence was suffered here by men and women alike, the sexual aspect of the violence suffered by men was evidently lost in a sea of other disturbing details.

Australia has thus far played a positive role in the fight against impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. For example, the Australian government has developed a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, to be implemented at home and overseas, in support of the UN agenda to which Resolution 1325 gave birth. But perhaps Australia can now advocate for a broader response to sexual violence, inclusive of the sexual violence that also affects males in wartime. Doing so will assist the work of any future ad hoc tribunals, possibly in South Sudan or Syria, as well as the ongoing work of the International Criminal Court.


Richard Hughes is a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Melbourne Law School.

Common Article 2 as a paradigmatically challenging threshold for the application of IHL – Rob McLaughlin

Our blog mini-series, co-hosted with the ICRC, wraps up with a post by Associate Professor Rob McLaughlin, Co-Director of the ANU Centre for Military and Security Law.  Dr McLaughlin shares his reflections on common article 2 and the important question of when IHL must be applied.

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Ensuring respect: the role of State practice in interpreting the Geneva Conventions – John Reid

In this second instalment of the mini-series on the ICRC’s Updated Geneva Convention Commentaries, John Reid, Head of the Office of International Law at the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, highlights the importance of State practice in understanding the common article 1 obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL.

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Common Article 1: A Lynchpin in the System to Ensure Respect for International Humanitarian Law – Jean-Marie Henckaerts

In March, the ICRC released an updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention of 1949.  This is the first instalment of six new commentaries aimed at bringing the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977 to the 21st century.  In this blog mini-series co-hosted with the ICRC, three authors will share their perspective on some of the fundamental obligations enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the evolution of the application and interpretation of these important provisions. 

Jean-Marie Henckaerts, ICRC’s Head of the Commentaries Update project, kicks off the mini-series with an examination of why the commitment by States to respect and ensure respect for IHL is more than just a “loose pledge”, and what measures States can take to fulfil this obligation.

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The Case of Hissène Habré before the Extraordinary African Chambers – Alexis Hedger

From being forcibly dragged into the courtroom in the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar, Senegal, last July, to finally facing justice at the hands of Senegal the African Union, the journey to conviction of former Chadian leader Hissene Habré represents a “significant moment” for international criminal law.

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Médecins Sans Frontières launches the online Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

International law practitioners, academics and students alike will benefit from the recent release by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of the updated Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law in an online format. The online release comes at the launch of the second updated edition of the Practical Guide, originally authored in 1998 by MSF Legal Director, Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier.

MSF is a humanitarian organisation that delivers aid to people affected by armed conflict and health disasters and globally advocates for the proper implementation of international humanitarian law. The Practical Guide was originally launched in order to comprehensively present the terms and rules of international humanitarian law accessibly to a global audience, such that a uniform interpretation could be established with a due focus on victims’ rights.

The 2015 update recognises the new dilemmas that have been posed to international humanitarian law since 1998. These include the ambiguities arising from the ‘global war on terror’, the rise of non-state armed groups and the increasing use of asymmetrical warfare. Amidst such changes, the Practical Guide considers how international humanitarian law can remain relevant, and for what purpose it exists in the 21st century. The answer that is ultimately put is that humanitarian law remains a crucial means of tempering power and warfare, despite its imperfections as a body of law.

The online Practical Guide includes a variety of alphabetically-arranged entries that cover humanitarian law issues from aggression to military necessity to right of access.