Johannesburg-based human rights organisation International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) has released a damning dossier on Sri Lankan chief of army staff Shavendra Silva, and wasted no time in calling on the government to suspend the commander lest Sri Lanka lose the support of the international community. “The United Nations should cease all peacekeeping deployment from Sri Lanka so long as its army is overseen by one of the world’s worst alleged war criminals,” the ITJP urged.
The extensive report confirms widespread fears that accompanied Silva’s appointment from the outset: the general is accused of overseeing a brutal crackdown on Sri Lanka’s Tamil population during the country’s civil war which ended in 2009, personally approving attacks against civilians and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Systematic sexual violence as a weapon
The Silva dossier only adds to the ample evidence that Sri Lankan government forces used sexual violence in a systematic weapon of war, and continued to do so even after the conflict officially ended. In 2017, the Associated Press made public allegations from more than fifty Tamil men that government forces tortured and sexually assaulted them with impunity; their testimonies make heavy reading, with accounts of gang rape, penetration with barbed wire and rampant sexual humiliation—all backed up by medical evidence.
The men’s reports are so appalling that one human rights investigator claimed they were “the most egregious and perverted” assaults that they had ever dealt with, made even more horrific by the systematic nature of the attacks. In 2016, British group Freedom from Torture alleged that 71 percent of the organisation’s Tamil clients, predominantly male, reported having been raped or endured some form of sexual torture. Given social stigma against such claims, the scale of the tragedy is likely to be far more widespread.
Despite this evidence, however, many victims have yet to come forward for justice. Their electing to remain in the shadows is understandable: their perpetrators are, to this day, scattered throughout Sri Lanka’s security services, including the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the different branches of Sri Lanka’s military. The elevation of Shavendra Silva to his current position of power is only further proof that victims are right to mistrust that the current government could possibly provide them with the justice they are owed.
Beyond Sri Lanka
Of course, Sri Lanka’s Tamil men are far from alone in the horrific torments they have suffered. In Liberia, for example, a survey showed that one third of male ex-combatants had experienced sexual violence; a parallel study in the Democratic Republic of Congo alleged that one quarter of men had experienced sexual violence as a direct result of conflict.
The statistics are even worse for women: in war-torn South Sudan, a shocking 65 percent of women have experienced sexual violence at the hands of government and rebel forces, while the roughly 50,000 women who were raped during the Bosnian war are still fighting, more than two decades later, to receive any kind of justice as they struggle to piece their lives together.
Struggling to seek support
“We need support, not pity,” reads one report, exposing the physical and psychological devastation felt by the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the wake of a war that tore their personal lives apart just as it did their country.
Dr Branka Antic-Stauber currently counsels a 150-strong group of survivors, including those who bore children as a result of their assaults during the Bosnian conflict. The men who committed the dreadful attacks, Antic-Stauber says, often have no idea of the existence of their offspring, even while their victims track down their perpetrators online and are confronted with information about the families the men started after the war. Short statutes of limitations and exorbitant court fees make it nearly impossible for these women to receive damages or assistance.
“As each year passes, so does the prospect of ever attaining justice or receiving the support to which they are entitled,” says Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Europe Director of the human rights group Amnesty International, “these women cannot forget what happened to them and neither should we.”
Growing calls for justice
Fortunately, there is a growing momentum behind the activists and organisations who are working tirelessly to bring these victims such justice. 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad—herself a victim of wartime sexual violence at the hands of the Islamic State—recently spoke alongside former British foreign secretaries Jack Straw and William Hague at an event in London denouncing the use of sexual violence in conflict.
The evening was organized by Justice for Lai Dai Han, an activist group pushing for recognition and an apology for the Vietnamese women raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War— 800 of whom are still alive today, who have been sidelined by Vietnamese society and have yet to receive redress from Seoul.
Murad’s fellow Nobel Laureate, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, has founded a hospital which has treated tens of thousands of victims of wartime sexual violence. Mukwege, a gynaecologist called “Doctor Miracle” in his home country, has emerged as a key face of the fight to end wartime sexual violence: “I cannot remain with my arms folded because our common humanity calls on us to care for each other,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Given this growing cacophony of voices calling for recognition for survivors of wartime sexual violence, the need to act is clear: the outbreak of conflict can no longer be synonymous with an outbreak of sexual attacks, and perpetrators like Shavendra Silva must face justice.
*Carolina Muñoz grew up in the suburbs of Miami afterher parents fled the escalating conflict in their native Colombia. She studied Political Science and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, and is now working for a small non-profit in Miami and doing research on human rights in South America.