Press Release

Gillibrand Statement On Shocking New Human Rights Watch Report On Retaliation Against Military Sexual Assault Survivors Shows Complete Lack Of Accountability

May 18, 2015

Washington, DC – U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today released the following statement after Human Rights Watch unveiled a new report on retaliation against sexual assault survivors in the military. The Human Rights Watch report delivers more evidence that the military has not yet effectively addressed retaliation against sexual assault survivors.  Based on over 255 interviews conducted between October 2013 and April 2015, the report includes over 100 pages of grim, first-hand accounts of the shocking retaliation experienced by servicemembers after they had reported being sexually assaulted.  Retaliation against survivors included threats and violence, harassment, social retaliation, professional retaliation, disciplinary action, involuntary discharges, and retaliation against those whose job it is to support survivors.  Human Rights Watch’s interviews reveal that for many survivors the retaliation that follows the assault is, in fact, “worse than the assault itself.” This report comes just weeks after the latest Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Responsive Office (SAPRO) Report found that 62 percent of women who reported an assault said they received some form of retaliation, one-third of whom said they experienced administrative action, and other one-third faced other forms of professional retaliation. In a second survey, 40 percent said they perceived professional retaliation. By the military’s own admission they have made no progress on this front. 

This shocking report needs to be read by every Member of Congress who cares about the women and men who put on the uniform to defend this nation. These sickening stories of retaliation against survivors should make every American angry. We keep hearing how previous reforms were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime. Yet there has been zero progress on this front and this mission is failing, especially considering that 62 percent of female servicemembers report experiencing retaliation after they reported a sexual assault, and this figure has not changed in years,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Survivors will not be able to get the justice they deserve until we change all of this business-as-usual climate without any real accountability and create a professional, non-biased and independent military justice system.  I will continue to push to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act on the Senate floor when the National Defense Authorization Act is debated by the full Senate in June. Our brave women and men in uniform deserve nothing less.”   

Significant conclusions from the report include the following:

1.  Retaliation against survivors who report being sexually assaulted is more common than the conviction of assailants.

  • Human Rights Watch’s report documents that military service members who reported sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation for doing so than to see their offender, if also a service member, convicted for a sex offense.

2.  No one is being held accountable for retaliation against sexual assault survivors.   

  • Even though the military’s own surveys show that 62 percent of female servicemembers who have been sexually assaulted face or perceive retaliation, Human Rights Watch, despite an exhaustive attempt, was able to uncover only two examples of minor disciplinary action being taken against persons who had retaliated against an assault survivor.
  • The Department of Defense turned over zero evidence of more serious disciplinary action, such as courts-martial or adverse administrative separation, being taken against those who had retaliated against assault survivors.

3.  Commanders appear to be part of the problem. 

Human Rights Watch’s research drew several disconcerting conclusions about the military command climate:

  • “leadership often did not respond to survivors’ complaints and sometimes even participated in the retaliation;”
  • “survivors said their command denied them important opportunities for training, deployments, and ultimately promotions;”
  •  “the command appeared to encourage the peer alienation of the survivor;” and
  • survivors heard “commanders talk openly about their cases to others or saw their case referenced in an email copied to people who did not need to know about it.”

4.  Survivors have little recourse if they experience retaliation.  

  • “Mechanisms to protect service members are not utilized, are ineffective, poorly understood, hamstrung by jurisdictional limitations, not sufficiently independent of command structures, and mistrusted because they lead to new incidents of retaliation.”
  • “The exclusive remedy for professional retaliation – the Military Whistleblower Protection Act – has yet to benefit one person who reported a sexual assault and experienced professional repercussions as a result.”
  • “The Boards of Correction, the administrative bodies meant to correct injustices to personnel records, are used far more often by perpetrators than victims, though victims are more likely to experience adverse administrative action that might require a fix.”

The Human Rights Watch’s report is available here. Senator Gillibrand’s report is available here.