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WASHINGTON, May 8 2013 (IPS) - The U.S. Department of Defence is announcing that reported cases of sexual assault in the U.S. military last year rose again to 3,374, a six percent increase over 2011 and a record high.
Yet the figure that is causing widespread anger here is the estimated number of unreported cases – some 26,000 incidents of rape or assault. That’s a significant rise even over last year’s estimated figure of 19,000, an astonishingly high number that constituted the first time that the U.S. military had released estimates for unreported incidents.
In a new annual report released Tuesday, the Pentagon says some 70 sexual assaults may be taking place within the U.S. military every day, affecting more than six percent of all women in active service and around 1.2 percent of men over the past year. Other official figures suggest that one in five servicewomen could be experiencing such assaults.
“Sexual assault is a crime that undermines trust within military units and is an affront to the basic values our Service members defend,” the report, available here and here, states. “While the Department has taken a multifaceted approach to fundamentally change the way the Department confronts sexual assault, there is still much work to do.”
Such figures constitute an increase of more than a third during just the past half-decade, and have clearly exasperated the top military leadership.
“[S]exual assault is an outrage; it is a crime … And if it’s happening inside our military, then whoever carries it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing,” President Barack Obama told reporters Tuesday.
“So I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programmes or training but, ultimately, folks look the other way. If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable – prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonourably discharged. Period.”
The Pentagon’s new report was given an inadvertent curtain-raiser on Monday, when the Air Force’s head officer in charge of sexual assault prevention was himself arrested on charges of sexual assault.
On Tuesday, President Obama noted that he had spoken with Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel earlier in the day and told him to “exponentially step up our game”. He also said that he wanted military members who have experienced sexual assault “to hear directly from their commander-in-chief that I’ve got their backs.”
Hours later, Secretary Hagel unveiled a new “prevention and response” plan aimed at increasing accountability, stepping up punishment and, ultimately, trying to end military sexual assault outright. The strategy includes the formation of a new nine-person panel, appointed by both the Pentagon and Congress, tasked with coming up with concrete recommendations within a year.
“This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need,” Hagel told reporters Tuesday.
“We need cultural change where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims’ privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene, and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice.”
62 percent retaliation
While the new Pentagon panel will be tasked with making recommendations on the full gamut of military sexual assault, one element that probably won’t be included is the possibility of removing responsibility for related investigation and punishment from the military structure itself.
This despite Secretary’s Hagel’s own contention on Tuesday that much of the problem has to do with the military’s “culture”. And despite critics’ contentions that assault victims are far less likely to report their experiences if they have to do so to a commanding officer.
Indeed, according to U.S. Senator Patty Murray, co-author of new legislation on the issue, some 62 percent of military personnel who have reported sexual abuse have experienced some form of retaliation.
“Every American should be outraged by the disturbing numbers from this year’s Defense Department sexual assault report, but no one should surprised,” Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps Captain and the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group, told IPS in an e-mail.
“Today we still have a military justice system in which commanding officers are granted the authority over the entire criminal justice process – instead of trained, impartial attorneys and judges.”
Although last month Hagel received plaudits for putting forth a policy recommendation that would weaken or do away with commanding officers’ abilities to overturn courts-martial decisions in cases of sexual assault, on Tuesday he nonetheless stated that he did not believe that the panel should look into taking this power outside of the military chain of command.
“It is my strong belief … that the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” Hagel said. “We do have to go back and review every aspect of that chain of command, of that accountability … [but] taking the ultimate responsibility away from the military – I think that would just weaken the system.”
Yet according to SWAN’s Bhagwati, more may need to be done to regularise investigation and accountability procedures.
“Unless Congress removes the institutional bias from the military judicial system,” she says, “sexual predators will continue to wreak havoc on our Armed Forces, and our troops will continue to face a well-founded fear of reporting, institutional retaliation, and career jeopardy.”
In recent weeks, the U.S. Congress has focused increasingly on military sexual assault, and on Tuesday senators put forward a bill aimed at combating the issue. According to a release, the 380,000 members of the Military Officers Association of America have already “strongly endorsed” the bill, which is slated to be introduced in the House in coming weeks.
Among other elements, the legislation “would create a new category of legal advocates, called Special Victims’ Counsels, who would be responsible for advocating on behalf of the interests of the victim,” Senator Murray, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“These SVCs would also advise the victim on the range of legal issues they may face. For example, when a young Private First Class is intimidated into not reporting a sexual assault by threatening her with unrelated legal charges – like underage drinking – this new advocate would be there to protect her and tell her the truth.”
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