Alumni Short

Sexual Violence Continues to Undermine U.S. Military

Cornell International Human Rights Clinic brings first military sexual assault victims case to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


Ithaca, New York – The Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic filed a trailblazing petition against the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of twenty service men and women who were sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military. The petitioners faced retaliation from their Chain of Command for reporting the incidents, and none received sufficient access to judicial remedies. This is the first case brought by survivors of sexual assault against the United States before an international human rights tribunal.

Sexual violence and rape in the military is endemic. According to the Department of Defense's most recent study, 6.1 percent of military women and 2.1 percent of military men experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact in the last year alone. When the petitioners reported being assaulted they were labeled "troublemakers" by their fellow military officers and forced to endure severe retaliation and harassment. In many instances, the petitioners' claims were not investigated, or when investigated, the perpetrators received minimal or no punishment. In the majority of instances, reporting the rapes led to the termination of petitioners' military careers.

The petitioners were part of a group that sued former Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates in federal court in 2011. Their case, which is featured in the Academy-Award nominated documentary "The Invisible War," was summarily dismissed because the U.S. military is immune from civil suit in U.S. federal court.

This international legal complaint asks the IACHR, an independent human rights body of the Organization of American States, to conduct a full investigation into the human rights violations and recommend that the U.S. government take steps to eradicate sexual violence within the military including removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault allegations from the Chain of Command.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill introduced by Senator Claire McCaskill that makes several improvements to the way the military justice system handles sexual assault cases. However, unlike the alternative bill proposed by Senator Kristen Gillibrand, which was defeated in a filibuster, the proposed legislation keeps authority to prosecute these cases in the hands of commanders, rather than transferring it to trained military prosecutors.

"The Senate's unanimous passage of the military sexual assault bill is an important step forward," said Liz Brundige, who directs the International Human Rights Clinic."But even if its provisions become law, they do not go far enough.As petitioners' case before the Inter-American Commission makes clear, international and regional human rights law require the United States to implement reforms that remove decision-making powers from the chain of command and enable survivors of sexual assault in the military to seek meaningful redress without jeopardizing their careers."

Congresswoman Jackie Speier commented that "extra pushups and forced apologies do nothing to stop rapists from preying on their next victims. Legal decisions need to be made by legal experts, not by commanders who have no incentive to prosecute for fear it will damage their reputations and their chances for promotion. The 20 men and women named in this petition had their fundamental human rights violated and were scarred by a broken military justice system."

In addition to Liz Brundige, Clinical Teaching Fellows Corey Calabrese and Naureen Shameem are attorneys on the case.

For interviews, please contact Kathleen Corcoran at 703-299-6738 or


To read the petition in full click here.

To view the Fourth Circuit's dismissal of the federal case click here.


Press Coverage:

How Military Sexual Assault Victims are Taking the Fight for Justice International
Think Progress, March 27, 2014

Ex-U.S. Military Personnel Petition International Tribunal over Sexual Assault
Thomson Reuters Foundation, March 25, 2014

Exclusive: Victims of Military Sexual Assault Appeal to Human Rights Panel
Al Jazeera, March 20, 2014