US defence chief backs change in military sex assault cases

The move comes after a years-long push for removing commanders from decisions on trying sexual assault cases.

Lloyd Austin is the first US defence secretary to support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults from the military's chain of command [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via Reuters]

In a major shift, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he backed removing the prosecution of sexual assault and other related crimes from the military’s chain of command, allowing instead for independent lawyers to try those cases.

Advocates and lawmakers have been calling for years for the military commanders to be taken out of the decision-making process when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases, arguing that they are inclined to overlook the issue.

Sexual assault and harassment in the US military is largely underreported and the Pentagon’s handling of it has come under renewed scrutiny.

“We will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command,” Austin said in a statement on Tuesday, becoming the first defence secretary to support such a move.

Austin said he also backed removing other related crimes, such as domestic violence, from the military chain of command.

He said he would brief President Joe Biden on the recommendation from an independent commission on sexual assault established by the Pentagon. The panel made the recommendations that Austin endorsed.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who has been leading the push for years and spearheaded a bill that would remove military commanders from decisions on pursuing sexual assault cases welcomed Austin’s statement, but said it falls short of the required changes.

“Secretary Austin’s recommendations are an excellent step in the right direction, but it’s not the full reform we need,” Gillibrand said in an interview with NPR aired on Wednesday.

“While taking sexual assault out of the chain of command is a good full step, it’s not enough,” she said, “there is a lot of bias in the military justice system and one of the most glaring places of bias is with issues of sexual assault.”

Gillibrand said this bias has affected which cases are tried, as well as who is being charged. She pointed to studies that have shown that service members of colour are more likely to be investigated and charged with sexual crimes and misconduct.

She said her bill would also do the same for other big crimes, turning such decisions over to trained prosecutors.

Gillibrand has argued against limiting the change to sexual assault, saying it would be discriminatory and set up what some call a “pink” court to deal with crimes usually involving female victims.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been leading the push for years and spearheaded a bill that would remove military commanders from decisions on pursuing sexual assault cases [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Wednesday that Gillibrand’s bill will be brought to the floor of the House soon and expressed confidence it will pass.

“I hope that it will succeed in the Senate as well,” Pelosi said.

A 2018 Pentagon survey estimated that 20,500 male and female service members experienced sexual assault that year.

The bill has the support of 66 senators that would have independent prosecutors handle felonies that call for more than a year in prison. But other key lawmakers and leaders of the military services have baulked at including all serious crimes, saying stripping control of all crimes from commanders could hurt military readiness, erode command authority, and require far more time and resources.

Senior military officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, have acknowledged failings in addressing sexual assault in the ranks.

But they have stopped short of endorsing moves to remove the prosecution of such cases from military commanders and argue that preserving commanders’ authority over prosecutions is vital to maintaining discipline.

Austin’s statement was issued on the same day a senior lawmaker released letters from members of the Pentagon’s top brass in which they voiced deep concern over legislation supported by most US senators that would overhaul the military justice system for crimes like sexual assault.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies