The Complexity of Addressing Sexual Violence Experienced by Guantanamo Bay Detainees

The Senate Torture Report enabled deeper understanding of the depth and range of violence experienced at CIA black sites by male detainees who later ended up at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We know these men were tortured in cyclical, brutal, and highly structured ways. My recent post (here) details precisely the ways in which many of these detainees experienced systematic sexual violation, including acts that meet the international legal definition of rape as set out in the ICC statute. However, despite publicly available evidence of sexualized torture, pervasive sexual harm and a pressing imperative for accountability and reparation that takes specific account of gender-based violence, scant attention has been paid to the sexual integrity and dignity harms experienced by these men. If one fully appreciates that these men were sexually brutalized, it follows that they suffered specific physical and psychological trauma associated with sexual violations of bodily integrity. Avoiding acknowledgment of sexual harm enables public and governmental dissociation and avoids legal and ethical responsibility for sexual violation. Moreover, we have heard little about the motives and liabilities of the perpetrators of gender-based and sexual violence at Guantanamo and other post 9/11 detention sites including Abu Ghraib and assorted rendition sites around the globe. Why such silence? What explains the wariness of confronting and naming male sexual harm?

Unwillingness to use the language of sexual harm to name the experiences of detainees is part of a broader pattern of exclusion whereby sexual harm to men and boys victimized during violent conflicts is largely ignored in the policy and practice of addressing sexual violence world wide. Sexual harm to men and boys is a largely invisible phenomenon, or at least one that is hidden in plain sight. In parallel, the sexual harms (including rape) that frequently accompanies male initiation into predominantly male military fraternities (militaries) is ignored and sidelined in both national and international conversations. Silence in one sphere colludes with and enables silence in the other. A particular taboo is evident in recording or acknowledging the experiences of sexual violence by male combatants and male civilian by-standers.

As Chris Dolan has noted in the context of documenting the rape of men in Northern Uganda, male rape is little discussed. Male rape practices in Ugandan were viewed as an affront to male identity and on the society as a whole and discounted or under-acknowledged in social and political settings. Violent sexual attacks on men were viewed as an attack on the integrity of the community (more so even than the rape of women), but in practice were downplayed in terms of their actual occurrence and little support or social sympathy was forthcoming for victims. That lack of sympathy has distinct parallels with the lack of empathy for Guantanamo detainees. Despite broad societal knowledge of inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as explicit detail on the forms, pain and consequences of sexual harm, little mobilization or outrage is evident. There is an odd avoidance of sexual harm to men, not least because addressing it directly also brings our gaze to the men (and women) who authorized, perpetrated, and facilitated these most extreme violations. In some sense, we have gotten used to the language of torture, it has become part of our lexicon in ways that inoculate us from the meanings and implications of responsibility that accompany it. But, sexual harm and rape is different. We can still be shocked by rape, and particularly appalled when men are raped. That outrage may precisely explain why lawyers, policy makers, and commentators avoid directly and consistently engaging with male sexual harm at Guantanamo and beyond. The despicability consensus about rape might in fact force a different kind of conversation about Guantanamo Bay detainees where torture language alone may counter-intuitively enable a kind of escapism from the precise horrors of harm.

I also acknowledge that victimized men, including one assumes male detainees at Guantanamo, have deep fear and hesitation about being identified as victims of rape or sexual violence. The limited empirical data available tells us that male victims may feel caught between the desire to have the facts of what was done to them exposed and continue to feel vulnerability and stigma for being exposed as rape or sexual violence victims. Cultural stigma added to the perceived harms of emasculation, dishonor and communal disgrace, means that in so far as these detainees have any autonomy to control what is said about them in the public domain, sexual violation may be the very last thing they want spoken about. In this way, the collusion of state and public interest to avoid the full exposure of sexual violence exploits the cultural and personal humiliation these men experience for being public victims of sexual harm.

In the midst of it all, the men (and some women) who authorized and legalized acts of rape, sexual violence and humiliation as well as those who carried out brutal, misogynistic penetrative and non-penetrative acts of sexual violence continue to avoid the kind of scrutiny and accountability that a rule of law state would presumably mandate. The failure to acknowledge sexual torture means that men who experienced sexual torture continue to lack the kinds of medical and psychological support that we generally assume to be the right of any person who has been violated sexually.  The contrast between executive condemnations of wartime rape in various parts of the globe including leadership at last year’s Global Summit on Sexual Violence in London and the defining silence on the sexual violation of men who were in US custody and control for many years could not be starker. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).