In 2014 and 2015, Cornell Law School’s Gender Justice Clinic filed two petitions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of twenty veterans who had been sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military—the first cases ever brought by survivors of sexual violence against the United States before an international human rights tribunal. Eight years later, the IACHR has now ruled that the cases are admissible.
Over the years, around twenty clinic students, now alumni, have been involved in these regional cases and related United Nations advocacy, supervised by clinic director Elizabeth Brundige and Cornell Women and Justice fellows Corey Calabrese, Naureen Shameem, Anne-Claire Blok, and Sharon Hickey. They have argued that the United States systematically failed to act with due diligence to prevent and respond to the violence the petitioners experienced.
Brundige notes that the IACHR rulings find that the clinic’s clients are exempt from the requirement to exhaust domestic remedies, explaining that military jurisdiction is inadequate to address allegations of serious human rights issues like sexual assault. The IACHR also rejects the United States’ argument that it is not liable under international law because the sexual violence and harassment alleged by the petitioners constituted private conduct.
“These decisions affirm that, regardless of whether perpetrators acted in an official or private capacity, the U.S. has a responsibility to take reasonable action to prevent sexual violence; to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible; and to provide adequate reparations,” said Brundige. “As will be shown in the merits stage, the U.S. failed to fulfil this responsibility in each of the petitioners’ cases.”
Additionally, the IACHR decisions discuss statements and recommendations made by several United Nations human rights bodies about sexual violence and the U.S. military, which followed Gender Justice Clinic engagement with these bodies.
The IACHR will now proceed to analyze the cases on their merits, considering whether the United States and its military tolerated and failed to prevent the sexual violence the petitioners experienced, failed to act with due diligence to investigate their allegations, and retaliated over reporting of the incidents, in violation of the American Declaration of Human Rights.