On November 9, following many months of advocacy work, members of Cornell Law School’s Gender Justice Clinic watched via Zoom as the Israeli representative on the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva urged the United States to do more to address sexual assault in the U.S. military.
The recommendation was given at the council’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process through which all U.N. Member States are given the opportunity to periodically review the human rights record of all other Member States and make recommendations for reform. As part of the current UPR process, the Gender Justice Clinic had submitted a stakeholder report to the Human Rights Council detailing how sexual violence in the U.S. military continues to be perpetrated at alarming rates.
In the months leading up to the UPR, clinic students Emma Horne ’21, Logan Kenney ’21, and Barbara Silva ’21 spoke at online briefing events for representatives of U.N. missions and foreign embassies and conducted related outreach, often in collaboration with survivor-advocate and Marine Corps veteran Stephanie Schroeder.
“I remember what it was like [while serving in the military] to be hopeless, powerless, and silenced,” Schroeder says. By contrast, her collaboration with the clinic and involvement in U.N. advocacy have “opened doors for [her] to negotiate directly with the senior leadership of the Department of Defense for the reforms we so desperately need.” She adds, “Without member states like Israel acknowledging and condemning military sexual assault, there would be no precedent or basis to argue for human rights within the DoD.”
The report is part of the clinic’s ongoing international advocacy on the issue of sexual violence in the military. It describes how the United States has not taken adequate measures to implement the recommendations on military sexual violence that were made at its 2015 UPR. According to the report, the military continues to foster a culture of impunity in which claims of sexual violence are not adequately investigated, prosecuted, or punished, and survivors are frequently subject to retaliation.
Superiors in an accused service member’s chain of command make key decisions about responding to sexual violence claims, including the decision to prosecute. The report argues that commanders’ close relationships with the accused, lack of legal training, and need to ensure the military success of their mission compromises their ability to handle cases impartially and effectively. The report also details how survivors often face discrimination in obtaining disability benefits for the ongoing mental health effects of military sexual trauma and points out that LGBTQ+ service members face a heightened risk of sexual harassment and violence.
Horne says that she was wary about the feasibility of her four-person clinic team communicating the issue of military sexual violence to missions during a global pandemic when UPR advocacy is traditionally done in person at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva. “However,” Horne stated, “an alliance of advocates of many different ages, professions, and time zones worked together to paint the picture of the current state of human rights in the United States, spotlighting several different issues, including military sexual violence, and ultimately garnering more attention from missions.”
The United States now has until March 2021, when the Human Rights Council will meet to finalize its review, to decide whether to accept each of the recommendations it has received. In the meantime, the clinic plans to join other civil society members in encouraging the new administration to accept the recommendations and take meaningful action towards change.