Alexandra Zakreski Women in Security

Australia Cracks Down on Sexual Assault in the Military

This is a follow-up to a previous article on sexual assault in the U.S. military: Military Rape Culture: Endemic or Epidemic.

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The video above is an announcement by Lieutenant General David Morrison, the Chief of the Australian army on the issue of sexual assault in the military. His forceful public statement is significant given that Australia’s experience with sexual assault in the military is comparable to the American case. In this video, Lieutenant General Morrison passionately decries “those who think that it is okay to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues.” Addressing those who object to female participation in the Australian army, Morrison urges them, with barely disguised fury, to “get out…there is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters.” It is shocking and disappointing that high-level officials in the U.S. military have yet to offer a similar definitive response to the issue of sexual assault. There needs to be a categorical condemnation of the kind delivered by Morrison. This is not to say that officials have been completely silent. Some have spoken out against these crimes at conferences and the U.S. Department of Defense has an extensive section of their website dedicated to the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. But this cannot substitute for a public statement that assures victims that the administration supports their cause and stands behind them.

In addressing the prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. military, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton has said that he had witnessed many ideological shifts in military culture with regards to inclusion of other races and acceptance of homosexuality. He argues that a similar natural shift will occur to offer greater respect for female soldiers. A statement by an American military official like the one made by Australian Lt. Gen. Morrison would be seen not only by current soldiers of all ranks, but also potential recruits, and thus could help to spur the kind of paradigm shift that Patton has predicted.

Lt. Gen. Morrison’s video appeared shortly after a concrete measure to address the situation of sexual assault in the U.S. military was rejected. The proposal by Democratic senator Kristen Gillibrand to remove military commanders from the process of determining whether cases go to trial when prosecuting charges of sexual assault has been shot down by the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin. Levin’s measure would require senior military officers to review decisions made by commanders to not prosecute sexual assault cases in the military. This is a setback for sexual assault victims in the military for a number of reasons. First, it indicates an unwillingness on the part of senior officials to undertake the kind of substantive changes necessary to genuinely address these cases. Second, Sen. Levin’s counterproposal betrays a misunderstanding of the issue at hand as it fails to account for the fact that several senior military officers have actually been charged with sexual crimes. Since the problem has reached even the highest levels of the U.S. military, there needs to be an independent system of prosecution. This would ensure that victims feel safe in speaking out against their attackers without fear of retaliation.

The blockage of Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal is particularly disheartening when considered in light of Australia’s response to a similar problem. As stated by Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military, “Senator Levin’s proposal […] is another half measure that will essentially kick the can down the road” in terms of “[addressing] the significant problems facing victims.” Without a strong public statement that definitively condemns sexual assault in the military, Levin’s proposal appears to be a superficial change that shifts blame and responsibility rather than getting to the root of the problem: an attitude among some commanding officers that power gives them the right to exploit their subordinates.


Alexandra Zakreski
Alexandra just graduated from McGill University, where she pursued a major in Art History (Honours) and a minor in International Development Studies. She is currently doing an internship with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. CJFE is a Canadian non-governmental organization that defends the rights of journalists and promotes free expression around the world, particularly through its role as a clearing house for IFEX (a global network defending and promoting free expression). Alexandra has traveled extensively in Europe and is bilingual. Her research interests include Canadian-US relations, development studies, environmentally sustainable economic growth, and the Middle East. She is presently working as a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada and is planning to attend law school in September 2014.