The Uniform Code of Military Justice is the federal law that governs the military. On January 26, 2022, President Biden signed an executive order making sexual harassment an offense under UCMJ. The presidential order follows Congressional changes to the processes of investigating and prosecuting sexual misconduct in the military.
Establishing sexual harassment as an offense under UCMJ was called for by the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. The 20-year-old soldier’s murder in 2020 has brought increased scrutiny on sexual harassment and assault in the military and the UCMJ. Under the 2022 NDAA, Biden had 30 days from its enactment to codify sexual harassment as an individual crime under UCMJ and to amend the Manual for Courts-Martial to include the crime.
Additionally, the NDAA removed commanders from sexual harassment complaint investigations and gave the responsibility to independent investigators outside of the chain of command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he is open to “significant and fundamental change” in how the armed forces handle sexual harassment and assault. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressed similar openness to changes in the UCMJ.
The executive order did more than make sexual harassment a UCMJ offense. President Biden tweeted:
Domestic violence and the sharing of intimate images exchanged in confidence have also received increased attention within the military. Moreover, all of these actions negatively impact unit morale and cohesion and detract from combat capability.