MPs HAVE BEEN URGED to change the law so that sexual abuse and rape cases in the armed forces are tried in civilian courts. This follows the publication by the Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces of its report, Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life.

The inquiry was one of the most important in the Committee’s history, with the Sub-Committee receiving an almost unprecedented level of engagement. Around one in ten female personnel currently serving in the Regulars contributed to the inquiry. It is also the first of its kind, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) lifting the usual restrictions that prevent service personnel from contributing to inquiries.

In the Committee’s survey, 64 percent of female veterans and 58 percent of currently-serving women reported experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD) during their careers. The inquiry heard truly shocking evidence of the bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape experienced by servicewomen. At the same time, the majority of survey respondents did not believe the military does enough to address BHD, even if things are better than they once were.

The Committee discovered a lack of faith in the Complaints system. Its survey found that six in ten women did not report the BHD they experienced. Of those who did complain, one third rated the experience “extremely poor”.

The report also finds serious problems with the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment, which sometimes exacerbates trauma for victims. The Committee urges the MoD to remove cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts and the Service Justice System, and instead hand these over to the civilian court system. The chain of command should also be removed entirely from complaints of a sexual nature.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU), Britain’s leading pacifist group, welcomed the report but said that more words would mean little if MPs continue to drag their feet on the issue, and warned that military leaders tend to resist any reduction in the power of the armed forces.

The government last month rejected an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that would have introduced the change that the committee is now calling for.

The PPU said that the armed forces are treated as being above the law, as they are the only organisations allowed to run their own criminal trials. They added that the latest revelations make it even more important that the armed forces are not placed beyond scrutiny but are held to account.

Jess Amy Dixon, a PPU member and writer who is researching a PhD on the #MeToo movement, said: “All the available data shows that sexual violence is rife within the armed forces. To try these cases in military courts is absurd – members of the forces are not above the same laws as the rest of us and these cases should be tried in the same way. As an advocate against sexual violence, I’m obviously pleased to see this report backed by MPs, though I wish they had backed the change when given the opportunity to vote on it recently.”

Symon Hill, PPU Campaigns Manager, said: “It is vital that MPs stand up to military leaders who don’t want to see any reduction in the power of the armed forces. To allow the military to continue to run their own criminal trials is to put them above the law and is an insult to the victims and survivors of sexual abuse and other crimes. After years of discussion, MPs need to stop faffing about and get on with changing the law.”

* Read Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life here

* Sources: Defence Select Committee and Peace Pledge Union