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Abuse in the Military: A Zero Tolerance Approach


The Ministry of Defence recently set out a new strategy which highlights their commitment to a zero tolerance approach to unacceptable sexual misconduct within the UK’s Armed Forces. To put this commitment into effect, the Ministry of Defence has stated that every allegation of a sexual offence will receive prompt, thorough, efficient and independent investigation.

The ‘Tackling Sexual Offending in Defence Strategy’ prioritises victims and aims to reduce the prevalence and impact of sexual offending in the Armed Forces. It appears to be in response to the Service Justice System review which was undertaken in February 2020 by His Honour Shaun Lyons who recommended a number of changes to the Service Justice System (SJS). The SJS provides the legal framework in which Armed Forces personnel are disciplined. The system mirrors the Civilian Criminal Justice System as closely as possible, but it also provides a mechanism whereby standards that are distinctive to the Armed Forces, such as absence without leave, can be enforced.

The review was commissioned following scrutiny and criticism of how the MoD handled allegations of sexual assaults and the jurisdiction of service police in investigating crimes of this nature. The strategy and new policies indicate the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to zero tolerance. In order to achieve this, a five-year vision has been set out with the aim of eliminating sexual offending within the Armed Forces. The focus will be on five key areas:

  1. Prevention: A programme of cultural change will be implemented in order to tackle unacceptable behaviour and to empower people to feel confident in calling out any unacceptable behaviour. There will be mandatory annual training on values and standards so that expectations of personnel are clear. The recruitment and vetting process will also be a key element.
  2. Investigations and Prosecutions: If prevention fails, then the Armed Forces must ensure that they respond with the expertise needed and that the expertise is underpinned by robust systems to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions. As part of this the Defence Serious Crime Unit (DSCU) has been established to take responsibility for investigating serious sexual offending.
  3. Support for Survivors: To promote internal welfare support services to survivors to raise awareness of support that is available and to show that every complaint is taken seriously.
  4. Partnerships: Aiming to improve collaboration and cooperation between organisations both internal and external to best support military personnel in order to achieve the aim of preventing and eliminating sexual offending in the Armed Forces.
  5. Management Information and Data: Strengthening the central data collection will help to understand the problem, how it is dealt with and how it can be improved. The Ministry of Defence is in the process of updating its Service Police investigation management system. The aim is to improve the system and to align it with the Civilian Criminal Justice System, about which the government publishes performance reports every six months.

The strategy provides a clear direction as to how the Ministry of Defence plans to deal with the issue of sexual offending within the Armed Forces. To supplement the strategy, other recently published measures include:

  1. Zero Tolerance to Unacceptable Sexual Behaviour: This policy aims to build trust and confidence in the Ministry of Defence’s ability to deal with unacceptable behaviours and demonstrates that supporting people who are victims of unacceptable sexual behaviour is a top priority.
  2. Zero Tolerance to Unacceptable Sexual Offences and Sexual Relationships between Instructors and Trainees: The policy stipulates that sexual relationships between instructors and trainees are unacceptable and will result in the discharge of the instructor.
  3. Zero Tolerance to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy: This policy supports the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to crack down on unacceptable sexual behaviour and prohibits all sexual activity which involves the abuse of power, including buying sex whilst abroad.

By implementing the above, the Ministry of Defence aims to tackle sexual offending in the Armed Forces by aligning the Royal Navy, RAF and Army under one approach when dealing with incidences which in turn will enable better support for victims. The Ministry of Defence’s commitment to the above may be under scrutiny following the recently launched formal investigation into the allegations of “unacceptable behaviour” by several Red Arrow pilots whilst on a training exercise in May this year ahead of their summer programme.


Lauranne Nolan

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