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Category: International, Violence against Women

Sexual Violence as Occupational Hazard—In Iraq and at Home in the U.S.A.

| December 21, 2007

Jamie Leigh Jones was just 20 in 2005 when she took a leap of faith to work in Iraq for her employer, military contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root, then a subsidiary of Halliburton. She went on a mission she believed in. 

Shortly after her arrival in Iraq, however, Jones’ ambitions were dashed in an alleged gang rape by co-workers. Jones’ account of being drugged and raped, then betrayed by her employer and held captive in a shipping container, has shocked Congress and reportedly inspired the Justice Department to reconsider her criminal allegations. More victims are emerging, too. Jones’ story has also intensified an international debate over criminal accountability for what are essentially private soldiers employed by the United States government in Iraq and Afghanistan. KBR denies the allegations.

The Jones case is the perfect storm of competing public values. It is a dreadful reflection of a thriving American culture of violence against women. It is one odious long-term consequence of an ill-conceived war in Iraq in an era of troop cutbacks. It illustrates the fate of crime victims in the real world experience of criminal and employment law.

Still, Jones, now 23, is an emblem of a new generation of women who have come of age expecting justice for sexual assault, and willing to tell their families, the media and the world about their exploitation. They intend to hold law enforcement officials and employers accountable for every violation of trust that has followed the crime.

As employment lawyers know, Jamie Leigh Jones is, in the end, one extreme example among thousands of victims of violence whose jobs and careers suffer as a result. Experiences like hers at KBR are the reason that sexual assault is recognized as an occupational safety problem throughout the workforce by the Centers for Disease Control and the Pentagon, for example.

Nearly half of all sexual assault victims lose their jobs or are forced to quit in the year following the assault, according to figures from the feminist law group Legal Momentum. Some states have passed laws to ensure that crime victims have a right to leave work for criminal proceedings or medical care. The far-reaching impact of sexual assault, however, often renders such legal protections meaningless, and few cover civil court proceedings such as seeking protection from abuse.

“Sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking all naturally affect the ability of anyone to concentrate or focus on work,” says Legal Momentum senior staff attorney Maya Raghu. “If a sexual assault happens at work or the perpetrator was a co-worker, it can make the workplace itself a traumatic experience.”

Moreover, about one in five acts of nonfatal violence happen in the workplace, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While Jones’ story from the Green Zone is stark and its details dramatic, its facts and its outcome are not unique. She speaks for thousands of sexual assault victims confounded by the failures of justice and facing the Hobson's choice of keeping a job or trying to heal.

In terms of criminal law, much of the media coverage of military contractors and their culpability for alleged crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan describes them as enjoying a “loophole” where no laws apply. In fact, while a tangle of laws create a long list of legal defenses for contractors accused of crimes in a war zone, prominent scholars and attorneys point out that legal contracts do not authorize crimes. “The underlying law is in place in many of these contractor cases,” University of Connecticut law professor Laura Dickinson told Women’s Media Center. Dickinson is an authority on private contractors, foreign affairs and human rights. “We haven’t had any prosecution because there’s no enforcement mechanism in place, and no U.S. attorney’s office that’s equipped to bring the cases.”

In a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing December 19 about the Jones case, attorney Scott Horton outlined the U.S. Department of Justice’s clear authority under the Military Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction Act to investigate and enforce U.S. criminal law in the Jones case. He also testified that no criminal case has been prosecuted against private contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite a growing list of allegations. The Justice Department did not send a representative to the hearing, a failure that Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, called “a disgrace.”

While some in Congress and at the Pentagon have proposed making contractors subject to military law, constitutional law presents an obstacle, scholars say. And with the Pentagon’s history of ignoring allegations of sexual assault (including zero sexual assault convictions from the 2003 sexual assault imbroglio at the Air Force Academy, for example), the limited value of military justice for women victims of co-worker violence is self-evident.

A more promising solution emerged this summer from an off-the-record Princeton University meeting among Defense Department officials, scholars, attorneys and industry leaders. They agreed that military courts should be only a back-up to Justice Department enforcement of the law. They also agreed that the unexpected growth of civilian warriors and warrior support in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased the urgency of a comprehensive solution to the many problems of a privatized military and foreign affairs workforce abroad.

Dickinson favors the creation of a U.S. attorney’s office dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of crimes, such as the Jones case, that are under U.S. jurisdiction but occur on foreign soil. It’s a simple amendment to an existing system that would solve a host of problems of law and diplomacy and centralize a meaningful law enforcement effort.

Had such an enforcement procedure been in place when Jamie Leigh Jones needed to call the authorities, she might still be on a mission in Iraq. Instead, she is on a mission for justice.

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