A landmark US law shifts military justice for sexual offences

A transformative law targeting the pervasive issue of sexual harassment and assault within the US military took effect on December 28. This groundbreaking legislation empowers independent lawyers, not commanders, to decide whether to prosecute cases involving murder, rape, and domestic violence among service members.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin hailed the law as a historic reform, deeming it the most significant change to the military justice system since the establishment of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950. Under this legislation, special counsels, legal professionals detached from the military chain of command, will be appointed within each military branch to handle serious offenses. These counsellors will be strategically located nationwide, with additional representation in areas reporting higher rates of rime.

The Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy will each have their own designated trial counsels, handling approximately 50 investigations and eight to 12 trials annually. This law, passed with bipartisan support in 2022, marks a concerted effort by lawmakers to enhance support and protection for victims of sexual assault and harassment within the military.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a key advocate for the law, emphasised the failure of commanders to deliver justice for victims, asserting the need for an independent system to ensure fairness and accountability. The legislation was prompted by a concerning surge in sexual assault and harassment cases within the military, as indicated by the Pentagon’s annual report.

The 2022 report disclosed alarming statistics, including a 13% rise in reports in the Navy, a 9% increase in the Air Force, and a 3.6% uptick in the Marines. Although the Army witnessed a 9% decrease, it maintained the highest number of reports at 8,942. The total number of reports across the military reached 8,942, nearly seven times higher than in 2006. Additionally, a confidential survey in 2022 revealed that 36,000 service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, compared to 20,000 in 2018.

Senator Gillibrand expressed her satisfaction, stating, “I fought for nearly a decade to reform the military justice system. It took a long time to pass my reforms, but finally, victims of sexual assault and other serious crimes have the independent, impartial justice system they deserve.”

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