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Explained: Why Biden is backing reform to take away US military’s authority over sexual assault cases

The changes were recommended by an independent commission convened by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to overhaul US military’s sexual assault prevention and prosecution process.

Written by Komal Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 3, 2021 8:19:03 pm
Biden’s approval was widely expected after Austin openly backed the reform that would strip military commanders from the oversight of sexual assault cases. (AP Photo/Representational)

US President Joe Biden Friday approved major reform in the US military justice system to remove prosecution authority from the jurisdiction of military commanders in cases of sexual assault.

Biden said he “strongly” supports the change. “Sexual assault is an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity… And sexual assault in the military is doubly damaging because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the US military and to our national defence,” the US President added.

The changes were recommended by an independent commission convened by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to overhaul US military’s sexual assault prevention and prosecution process. Biden’s approval was widely expected after Austin openly backed the reform that would strip military commanders from the oversight of sexual assault cases. “I know enough at this point to say that I fully support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command,” said Austin late June.

There is overwhelming data to back reform. The number of reported sexual assault cases in the US military went up from 3,327 in 2010 to 7,825 in 2019, according to a report by the Department of Defence. Another 2016 survey found that six out of 10 sexual assault survivors had faced retaliation for reporting the crime and 73 per cent of retaliation reports alleged that retaliators were in the survivor’s chain of command.

A survey conducted in 2019 showed that while more people were facing sexual assaults in the military, they were less likely than before to report them. The reporting rate in 2018 went down to 30 per cent from 32 per cent in 2016. Over 1 in 4 survivors who did not report feared retaliation.

Efforts by other leaders

Military’s handling of sexual assault and related cases has been long debated. Kristen Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, has been pushing, in house panels, a Bill that proposes sweeping changes to the system. Despite gaining wide support for the legislation, she could not succeed due to resistance from the top Republican of Senate Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Chairman Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island who supports handing over prosecution of sexual assault cases to independent authorities but finds the legislation too broad.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with support of Democrat Jackie Speier of California and Gillibrand, announced last month that she also intends to introduce a Bill to remove prosecution authority from military commanders on all serious crimes committed in the military and not just sexual assaults.

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Speier had also reintroduced this May the ‘I Am Vanessa Guillen Act’, named after the 20-year-old army specialist who was reportedly murdered by another soldier in April 2020. Her family revealed that she had been sexually harassed by a sergeant months before her murder.

The Bill, supported by Pelosi and Republican Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, proposes to make sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and shift prosecution in cases of sexual assault and harassment from the military chain of command to independent authorities.

Resistance from military brass

The competitive efforts of these leaders in reforming the system face resistance from several military officials. Describing the letters written to him last month by seven top military officials regarding the changes in the military justice system, Senator Jim Inhofe said, “Their answers were, across the board, not reassuring. The service chiefs acknowledged the devastating effects of sexual assault on our military, and all were open to reasonable ideas to address this issue. However, I also heard them caution that any changes should be evidence-based and limited in scope to sexual assault and related offences.”

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Expanding the scope of reform

While the reform backed by Biden and Austin limits the change to sexual assault, both Gillibrand and Pelosi are interested in broadly revamping the military justice system, focusing on other serious crimes as well. “While concluding that taking sexual assault out of the chain of command is a good first step, it’s not enough because as we’ve studied this issue for the last eight years and having data on it for well over a decade, we recognize that there’s a lot of bias in the military justice system,” Gillibrand told NPR.

“The most glaring places of bias is in these issues of sexual assault because the rate of sexual assault continues to grow. It was approximately 20,000 sexual assaults and rapes last estimated by the Department of Defence (DOD). But on average, over the last three years, only about 200 cases end in conviction,” she said.

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