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U.N. Human Rights Council Recommends that the U.S. Improve Access to Justice for Survivors of Military Sexual Assault

Ithaca, New York – During the United States' Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on May 11, 2015, both Denmark and Slovenia recommended that the United States do more to prevent and prosecute sexual violence in the U.S. military, including by removing prosecutorial decision-making powers from the chain of command.

The UPR is a peer review system wherein all 192 member states of the U.N. can question the country under review on its human rights record and recommend necessary measures to ensure its alignment with international human rights standards.

Last fall, Cornell Law School's Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and Global Gender Justice Clinic partnered with the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) to submit a report highlighting how the United States' failure to respond adequately to military sexual assault violated service members' rights under international law.

In March, representatives of the Center and Clinic, along with Stephanie Schroeder, a survivor of military sexual violence, travelled to Geneva to engage in advocacy with U.N. member states. While in Geneva, the delegation met with numerous countries to highlight how the United States' failure to respond adequately to sexual violence in the U.S. military violated service members' rights under international law. As of this morning, the delegation's efforts were successful.

Denmark specifically recommended that the "United States improves access to justice, including due process and redress, for victims of sexual violence in the military;this would include removing from the chain of command the decision about whether to prosecute cases of alleged assault." Slovenia also urged the United States to prevent sexual violence in the military, ensure prosecution of offenders and provide redress for victims.

The recommendations have come at a time when sexual violence in the military is back in the public eye. The Department of Defense issued its latest annual report on sexual violence in the military earlier this month, outlining the steps it has taken to address sexual assault. At the same time, senators like Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) continue to argue that the Department of Defense must do more to prevent and prosecute sexual violence in the military by removing commanding officers' discretion to determine whether to prosecute claims of sexual violence and by ensuring that all claims are properly investigated, prosecuted and punished.

"Today, the Human Rights Council has joined other international bodies and experts in raising concern about the United States' response to military sexual assault," said Professor Liz Brundige, who directs the Avon Global Center and Global Gender Justice Clinic."Importantly, Denmark's recommendation marks the first time that a human rights body has called upon the U.S. to remove key decision-making authority from the chain of command in cases alleging sexual violence. This would be a critical step forward in fixing the systemic problems that have violated the human rights of countless survivors of military sexual assault."

For survivors of sexual assault in the military, like Stephanie Schroeder, these recommendations were vindicating. Schroeder explained, "For me and so many others who were denied a remedy for the sexual assault we experienced, today's outcome shows that redress can be won before the UN–and hopefully lead to meaningful change back home."


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