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Ex-U.S. military personnel petition international tribunal over sexual assault

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 25 Mar 2014 06:11 GMT
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In a 2010 file photo, a U.S. Marine waits in the moonlight for a helicopter to transport him home for leave from Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
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NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human rights attorneys have filed a petition with an international tribunal against the United States seeking redress on behalf of 20 alleged victims of sexual assault during their military service, marking the first time such a case has been brought against the U.S. in an international forum.

Lawyers with the Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic filed the petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an independent body of the Organization of American States that monitors the state of human rights among member states, including the U.S.  

The complaint asks the IACHR to conduct an investigation into human rights violations alleged by the 20 former military men and women, who said they experienced retaliation, harassment and insufficient access to judicial remedies after reporting sexual assaults to their superiors.

“In many instances, the petitioners’ claims were not investigated, or when investigated, the perpetrators received minimal or no punishment. In the majority of instances, reporting the rapes led to the termination of petitioners’ military careers,” according to a news release from the Cornell lawyers.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members found that 6.1 percent of active duty women and 1.2 percent of men indicated they had experienced some level of “unwanted sexual contact”, ranging from rape to other forms of sexual abuse.

The number of women reporting such sexual assault rose 4.4 percent from 2010, while the rate reported by men remained unchanged. The report concluded, “The increased USC (unwanted sexual contact) rate for women and the unchanged USC rate for men this year indicate that the Department has a persistent problem and much more work to do in preventing sexual assault in the Armed Forces.”

The petition filed by the Cornell attorneys also asks the IACHR to recommend changes in the way the military currently handles cases of sexual assault by transferring the decision to prosecute such cases from commanders to independent military prosecutors.

This change in the decision-making process was the crux of a bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand that was defeated earlier this month. Instead, the U.S. Senate passed an alternative bill by Sen. Claire McCaskill that provides greater protections for victims of sexual assault in the military and demands greater accountability from commanders, but leaves the decision to prosecute cases within the chain of command.

The bill still must pass the U.S. House of Representatives, which is expected to consider it later this year.

“But even if its provisions become law, they do not go far enough,” Liz Brundige, director of the Cornell International Human Rights Clinic, said in a statement. “As petitioners’ case before the Inter-American Commission makes clear, international and regional human rights law require the United States to implement reforms that remove decision-making powers from the chain of command and enable survivors of sexual assault in the military to seek meaningful redress without jeopardizing their careers.”

Naureen Shameem, one of the attorneys filing the petition, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the clinic had taken the case to the international tribunal after domestic remedies had failed.

The 20 men and women represented in the petition had also been part of a 2011 federal suit against former U.S. Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, which alleged that their failure to act on the issue of sexual assault against the military personnel was a violation of their constitutional rights.

That suit, the subject of the documentary “The Invisible War”, was dismissed because the U.S. military is immune from civil suits in U.S. federal court.

With the petition to the IACHR, Shameem said, “I think what the clinic is trying to do, together with the petitioners, is keep the issue on the table and to highlight that this is not an individual problem for the petitioners but a question of the United States’ human rights obligations regarding sexual violence and the military justice system.”

She said it might take until January 2015 or later before the IACHR rules on the admissibility of the case.

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