“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
We recently received the shocking reports that the American military had instructed its soldiers in Afghanistan to ignore incidents of sexual assaults on children committed by local militias that the Pentagon is funding and training. As reported, U.S. service members received orders from their superiors to disregard child sexual abuse by their Afghan “allies” because the commission of sexual crimes against children is part of the Afghan “culture.” And taking this position to its shameful depths, the military disciplined, and even in some cases ended the careers of, service members who ignored such orders and actively intervened on behalf of the abused children.
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan responded to these reports by stating that military personnel are expected to report to superiors any allegations of sexual abuse of children by Afghan forces. But a spokesman for the American command there announced that child abuse allegations “would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law” and therefore outside the jurisdiction of our military. Under that view, U.S. forces are not required to report incidents of child sexual abuse committed by Afghan military or police personnel and are even precluded from intervening to stop these abuses even when they occur in front of their eyes.
Fundamentally, this position violates human decency and international laws that protect children. Moreover, failing to protect children – any children – from sexual abuse and worse yet, prohibiting any actions to stop sexual abuse as it is occurring, sends a clear and harrowing message to all children that they are not worthy of protection from sexual assaults. In other words, that they should not bother to report sexual crimes against them because they don’t really matter.
It is well-established that childhood sexual abuse is a terribly underreported crime. Recent studies have shown that in this country, some 85%-90% of such cases are never reported to law enforcement. Of the reported cases, less than 30% result in arrests and an abysmally low 3% end in perpetrators’ convictions. It is estimated that there are over 40 million adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the U.S. alone. Our legal system fails to identify perpetrators, fails to bring them to justice, and fails to protect our children. At what point must we admit that on some unacceptable level, sexually assaulting children is part of our culture, as well? How can we turn a blind eye to children being sexually abused in Afghanistan without conveying to children and adult survivors here that reporting the crimes against them is futile because our society has come to accept that child sexual abuse occurs and there is not much to be done to stop it?
There are extensive laws on the books – nationally and internationally -- to protect children. In this country, numerous state and federal criminal laws prohibit sexual crimes against children and carry severe penalties for perpetrators. Article 77, Additional Protocol I, Geneva Conventions provides that “Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault.” Common Article 3 of the Conventions requires humane treatment for all civilians during armed conflicts, which proscribes rape and sexual violence. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other international and regional human rights treaties prohibit rape, sexual abuse, and exploitation of children.
But all of the national and international laws, conventions, and treaties are only as effective as there exists the will to apply and enforce them. When the U.S. military precludes its service members from reporting or preventing crimes against children, our government violates its obligations under the laws of war and all human rights precepts. We, as a people with a sense of human dignity and a belief in fundamental human rights, must demand that our government and our military do better. And we must demand reforms to our legal system at home to provide survivors of child sex abuse with a meaningful opportunity to obtain justice against their perpetrators.
We must require that all children – in the United States, in Afghanistan, or any place else in the world – be protected against sexual exploitation and violence. We can no longer be silent and we must vigorously encourage our children to report sexual crimes against them. The challenge is ours, the crisis continues, the time to act is now.
Neil Jaffee, Legal Counsel
Pursuit of Truth film