Clinical Short

Gender Justice Clinic Highlights Issue of Military Sexual Assault in Advocacy Before UN Human Rights Committee

In January 2019, the Gender Justice Clinic submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the issue of military sexual assault in the United States. The report sought to inform the Committee as it prepared its List of Issues Prior to Reporting (LOIPR), a set of requests for information from the United States that marks the first step in the Committee’s review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Gender Justice Clinic student Emilie Armbruster (3L) prepares for her presentation at an NGO briefing with members of the UN Human Rights Committee
Gender Justice Clinic student Emilie Armbruster (3L) prepares for her presentation at an NGO briefing with members of the UN Human Rights Committee.

According to the Clinic report, military sexual assault continues to be committed at alarming rates. In 2016 the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that 14,900 active duty service members experienced sexual assault that year alone, though actual rates of sexual violence are difficult to determine and likely exceed estimates. Despite the magnitude of this issue, survivors of military sexual assault continue to be denied redress.

Under the current military justice system, an accused person’s commander has authority to make key decisions about responding to sexual violence claims. The report argued that commanders' close working relationships with the accused and need to ensure the military success of their mission compromises their ability to handle cases impartially and afford redress to sexual violence survivors.

The Clinic’s submission reasoned that the discretion afforded to commanders in military sexual assault cases, the culture of impunity that exists in the U.S. military, the military’s failure to protect survivors from retaliation, survivors’ lack of access to civilian courts, and discrimination against survivors in access to veteran’s benefits for PTSD related to military sexual trauma violate numerous provisions of the ICCPR.

Following the written submission, Clinic member Emily Armbruster ’20 together with Professor Liz Brundige travelled to Geneva, Switzerland in March 2019 to attend a civil society briefing with members of the Human Rights Committee. Clinic member Ipek Toksavul ’19 supported the team from Ithaca. In her presentation, Armbruster emphasized the Clinic’s concerns regarding U.S. military sexual assault, shared updates subsequent to the January submission, and connected the problem of military sexual assault with broader issues of gender-based violence in the United States.

“Going to Geneva and speaking in front of the Human Rights Committee was incredibly exhilarating and rewarding,” Armbruster said, reflecting on the experience. She added, “Knowing that we were doing everything in our power to raise awareness of this grave injustice and to advocate for change made our work all the more meaningful. This topic has impassioned me, and to have the opportunity to actively seek change was truly powerful.”

On April 2, 2019, the Human Rights Committee published its List of Issues Prior to Reporting, which includes a call for the United States to “detail measures adopted by the State party to combat physical and sexual violence against women . . . within the U.S. Military.” The United States must now submit a written response to the Committee’s questions, and the Committee will then formally review the country’s compliance with the ICCPR.

Armbruster noted, “Seeing the tangible effects of our advocacy is so empowering. It is huge that an international body like the Human Rights Committee recognizes the severity of military sexual assault in the United States and has included it in their List of Issues. We hope that the United States will respond honestly and openly to the Committee’s questions and work to implement its human rights treaty obligations, including by strengthening its efforts to prevent and respond to military sexual violence.”