Jan. 26 (UPI) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order making sexual harassment an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The order establishes sexual harassment as a specific offense under the UCMJ and strengthens the military justice response in prosecuting cases of domestic violence and fully implements changes to criminalize the wrongful broadcast or distribution of “intimate visual images.”
“Today marks another turning point for survivors of gender-based violence in the military,” the White House said in a statement. “Moving forward, the Administration will continue to advance prevention, promote safe and respectful military climates and strengthen care and support for survivors.”
Establishing sexual harassment as an offense was a provision in the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act included in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
The law is named for Houston resident Vanessa Guillén, who was a 20-year-old Army private first class stationed at Fort Hood when she disappeared in April 2020. Her family said she had complained of being sexually harassed by another soldier before her disappearance. The suspect in her death, Spc. Aaron David Robinson, died by self-inflicted gunshot while being pursued by authorities, and his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, was arrested for helping him dismember and burn Guillen’s body.
The order also included a provision removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment from service members’ chain of command and placing it in the hands of independent military prosecutors while also providing protection against retaliation.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in June said he would recommend Biden remove prosecutorial powers over sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command.
Austin added that greater accountability is needed to address the problem of sexual assault and the military itself needs to change its approach to prevention and victim services.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley pushed back against the practice in a letter dated May 19, saying that “removing commanders from prosecution decisions, process and accountability may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust and loyalty between commanders and those they lead.”