Military Commissions Act Threatens Rights of Some Sexual Assault Victims
Saturday, September 30, 2006 2:06 PM

On 29 September 2006, President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act. The Act defines “unlawful enemy combatants” and gives both definitions and procedures available for dealing with them.

The Act reaffirms the actions that the United States government has been undertaking already, including acts that were struck down as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court on 29 June 2006.  This includes the denial of the writ of habeas corpus, denial of court access for rights under the Geneva Conventions, and definitions that make it difficult to prosecute acts of rape and sexual abuse.

The writ of habeas corpus is fundamental in our society.  It gives an individual the opportunity to go to court to question the legitimacy of their imprisonment, claiming either a legal or factual error on the part of the judge or executive that has imprisoned them.  Without this right, the detainees have no ability to question their imprisonment, and specific charges and judicial review are not necessary.

The lack of access to assert an individual’s rights under the Geneva Conventions is a violation of international human rights standards.  The Convention was ratified after World War II and remains an important part of international law.  It defines protections available to Prisoners of War (POWs) and minimum standards of treatment for them.  The Act avoids having the Convention standards apply because it defines “unlawful enemy combatants” in a way that does not include them in the Conventions’ definition of POWs.

The combination of the denial of the writ of habeas corpus and the lack of access to courts for Geneva Convention violations creates an atmosphere for the “unlawful enemy combatants” of seclusion from the rest of the world.  Under this Act, the President and the Secretary of Defense are able to decide what they believe to be legally permissible for interrogation techniques and punishments to be used.  The Act allows for the creation of military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects, which are not subject to the same rules and regulations available in either international courts or the courts of the United States.  The system creates two separate processes for Americans and non-Americans, and the protections afforded to each group are vastly different.  There is also retroactive immunity for people who have long participated in torturous or cruel activities.

Another area that is lacking in this Act is the way in which rape and sexual abuse are defined.  These definitions are found in Section 8(d)(1):

(G) RAPE- The act of a person who forcibly or with coercion or threat of force wrongfully invades, or conspires or attempts to invade, the body of a person by penetrating, however slightly, the anal or genital opening of the victim with any part of the body of the accused, or with any foreign object.

(H) SEXUAL ASSAULT OR ABUSE- The act of a person who forcibly or with coercion or threat of force engages, or conspires or attempts to engage, in sexual contact with one or more persons, or causes, or conspires or attempts to cause, one or more persons to engage in sexual contact.

These definitions are not in line with the international laws or those of the United States.  The Geneva Convention defined these acts as torturous, cruel, inhuman, and degrading.  By lowering these standards, the rights of the victims who are considered “unlawful enemy combatants” are severely limited and gross violations of their rights are able to occur. 

Many organizations have taken notice of the negative effects this Act will have on the United States and its standing in the international community.  It is a clear violation of the international standards for human rights, and organizations such as Amnesty International USA are dedicated to holding the administration accountable.

Compiled from: Amnesty International USA Press Release.  28 September 2006.  “Amnesty International Profoundly Disappointed By Congress' Passage of Detainee Legislation”, available; For full text of the Act passed by Senate:; Presidential press release regarding the Senate’s passing of the Act:; Feminist Daily News Wire, 18 September 2006.  Proposed Bills Threaten Rights of Sexual Assault, Rape Victims, available at: