Canada refers military sexual assault cases to civilian courts

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OTTAWA – The Canadian military will hand over the investigation and prosecution of cases of sexual misconduct to civilian police and courts, the country’s new defense minister announced Thursday.

The announcement came from Anita Anand, a former law professor whose appointment as defense minister last week was widely seen as part of a government attempt to address the issue of sexual assault in the ‘army. It arose out of a recommendation from a retired Supreme Court of Canada judge who was asked in April to review the military’s handling of cases of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

This decision came in the midst of a crisis for the Canadian armed forces.

Since February, 11 of its top executives have been investigated, dismissed or forced to retire. Other senior military officers have been put on leave for their mismanagement of sexual misconduct investigations.

Current and former military women have spoken about what they describe as a military culture that both allows and covers up inappropriate sexual behavior by senior officers.

General Jonathan Vance, the former Chief of the Defense Staff of the Canadian Forces who retired in January, was charged by military police in July with one count of obstructing justice following investigating allegations of sexual misconduct.

His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, was dismissed from his post after also being investigated for sexual misconduct. While a military police investigation ultimately concluded there was no evidence to prosecute a court martial, the government did not return him to the highest post.

“They just still don’t get it,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month of how the military deals with sexual assault and misconduct.

In an interim assessment delivered last month to former defense minister Louise Arbor, a retired Supreme Court judge, said she had already seen “significant skepticism among stakeholders, especially survivors , as to the independence and competence “of the military police and its special investigative service which investigates serious crimes.

She called this perception “pervasive” within the military and much of the general public, and said it had “created serious distrust of the military justice system and, in turn, particularly, in the investigation phase “.

Ms Arbor recommended that investigations and prosecutions be temporarily handed over to civilian police forces, prosecutors and the courts while she completes her review.

Ms. Anand, Minister of Defense, said on twitter that she had “accepted in their entirety the recommendations of Madame Arbor”. She also posted a letter she wrote to Ms. Arbor. “The unprecedented scrutiny the institution is undergoing,” Ms. Anand wrote, “represents an equally unprecedented opportunity for meaningful change to build confidence.”

The policy directive is the first substantive change on sexual assault since the military pledged in 2019 to improve its complaints process and the government set aside nearly C $ 1 billion to resolve complaints for sexual misconduct.

Stéfanie von Hlatky, director of the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Said Ms Anand’s decision would be welcomed by many current and former members of the military, even if the ultimate solution is not clear. will be the ever growing problem.

“There was certainly that pressure on her to take swift action and set the tone for decisive, short-term change,” said Professor van Hlatky, who studies gender issues related to the military. “Since February, many observers, including groups of survivors, have been increasingly impatient with the pace of change. “

Implementing the change, however, will require considerable negotiation between the federal government and the provinces.

While all criminal laws, including those relating to sexual misconduct, are the responsibility of the federal government, the administration of justice is a provincial responsibility. Many provinces also outsource much of their policing to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a federal force that has been the subject of much criticism in the past for its handling of sexual assault and murder cases involving indigenous women.

Professor van Hlatky said civilian police forces also might not have enough “military knowledge” to deal effectively with investigations involving the armed forces.

Ms Anand’s swift action contrasts with US attempts to reform the way the US military deals with cases of sexual misconduct.

President Biden said last summer he wanted the military to remove the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases from commanders’ control, the first U.S. president to do so. A panel appointed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has makes a similar recommendation, asserting that independent judge-lawyers should take on the role that commanders currently play.

But such a move would require authorization from Congress, and the House and Senate disagree on some aspects of the necessary legislation.

New York Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has championed such a change for nearly a decade, has been frustrated both by how quickly the Pentagon wants to move forward – the panel recommended years of easing in many new policies – and the House’s version of the legislation, which is much more limited in scope compared to what its bill seeks to reform.

She and many other senators are co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation aimed at exempting commanders from prosecuting decisions of all serious crimes, beyond sexual assault, and turning that authority over to independent military prosecutors.

It may take up to the end of the year to resolve the issue through legislation, and many commanders, especially those of the Marines, remain reluctant to change.

Ian Austen reported from Ottawa and Jennifer Steinhauer from Washington.



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