Retaliation hurts US military bid to curb sexual assault

WASHINGTON - US military personnel who are sexually assaulted and report the crime often face retaliation, but little is done to hold wrongdoers accountable even though various disciplinary responses are available, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

The rights group, in a 113-page report based on interviews with sexual assault victims, said the military's response to retaliation was often seen as ineffective, hamstrung by jurisdictional limitations or too tied to the command structure.

One of the most powerful tools, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, would enable victims to complain directly to the Pentagon inspector general, but "we have been unable to find cases in which a survivor who experienced retaliation was helped by that law," the report said.

"The US military's progress in getting people to report sexual assaults isn't going to continue as long as retaliation for making a report goes unpunished," said Sara Darehshori, a counsel at Human Rights Watch who helped write the report.

The group urged Congress to reform the whistleblower act to give military personnel the same protection as civilians.

It also recommended lawmakers bar the military from charging sexual assault victims with minor misconduct disclosed in reporting an attack, like underage drinking.

The study was conducted with the assistance of the Protect our Defenders rights group, which seeks to help military victims of sexual assault.

It was released just two weeks after the Pentagon presented its annual report on sexual assault in the military, which estimated some 20,300 personnel were sexually assaulted in 2014, a 27 per cent drop in two years.

The decline in total estimated assaults coupled with a rise in reporting were seen as signs the Pentagon's efforts to curb the problem were having a positive impact.

But Defence Secretary Ash Carter noted the total was "far, far too many" and the department needed to do more.

Laura Seal, a Pentagon spokeswoman, welcomed the research and insight provided by the Human Rights Watch report.

"We are very concerned whenever we hear about retaliation associated with reports of sexual assault, and we are open to any information, analysis, insight and partnerships that will help us craft and improve our way forward," she said.

A survey for the Pentagon found that 62 per cent of women who reported sexual assaults believed they had been subjected to retaliation.

More than 47 per cent of sexual assault victims in the military are female, while nearly 53 per cent are male.