10/25/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

GIs Welcome, Or Welcome to Leave?

In their final debate, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney sparred over handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2014.

The people and government of Afghanistan will have to decide what kind of security relationship, if any, they want to have with the United States after NATO withdraws. But from a human rights perspective, one thing is clear: any U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan in times of war or peace must respect international human rights and humanitarian law (IHL) and be fully accountable for their actions.

Recent events far away from Afghanistan underscore the importance of ensuring justice and accountability whenever and wherever U.S. forces are deployed abroad.

U.S. forces overseas typically operate according to a binding memorandum called a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). SOFAs set forth the legal rights and standing of troops based or operating in foreign countries, and the U.S. has dozens of them. One of the earliest, with treaty ally Japan, was agreed on January 19, 1960, and remains in force, albeit in revised form.

That agreement is under intense strain today as a result of the alleged rape of a Japanese woman by two 23-year-old U.S. sailors last week in Okinawa. The sailors were assigned to the Joint Naval Air Station, Fort Worth, Texas, but were on Okinawa on temporary duty.

The commander of U.S. forces in Japan promptly apologized for the alleged rape, imposed a curfew, announced that military personnel will receive new "core values training," and promised to review the military's liberty policy. Importantly, he took personal responsibility for the incident. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan also promised that the United States would cooperate fully with Okinawan authorities investigating the alleged rape and assured the Japanese people that the U.S. would not take the allegations lightly.

These are appropriate first steps. They show that the United States may finally have learned some fundamental lessons from six previous rapes committed by U.S. forces since they were posted to the island in 1972. The conduct of U.S. forces, whether in Afghanistan, Okinawa, or anywhere around the globe, will -- and should -- come under strict scrutiny. Beyond the terrible toll on civilians, all human rights violations don't just tarnish the military's reputation; they can endanger the mission by jeopardizing host nation support.

This latest rape allegation has hardened local sentiment against the presence of more than 20,000 U.S. military personnel on Okinawa. It has led to protest marches by tens of thousands of residents, many of whom have long argued that Okinawa should not have to play host to nearly half of all U.S. forces stationed in Japan. And it has reminded the residents of Okinawa of another horrific crime that caused outrage not just in Japan, but also in Washington.

On September 4, 1995, three U.S. servicemen raped a twelve year-old Okinawan girl. Admiral Richard Macke, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific at the time, condemned the crime. But during a trip to Washington on November 17, 1995, he remarked that the really "stupid" thing about the rape was that for the money paid to rent the car used in the crime, the servicemen "could have had a girl."

Those offensive and asinine remarks didn't just end Admiral Macke's career. They also prompted one of the more memorable moments of Vice President Joe Biden's senatorial career, when he took to the Senate floor to condemn Macke's notion that the rapists could have hired a prostitute rather than assaulting a twelve year old:

I realize I am accused, rightfully so, by my colleagues on occasion of being a little too emotional, but I want to tell you, if that were my daughter and that admiral said that, I would go find the son -- I would go find him. I would look for him. I would -- it would not be right; I would be wrong; it would be a violation of law -- but I would find him and rip his ears off, if I could, or get killed in trying.

In a succinct show of bipartisanship, Senator John McCain responded to Senator Biden's impassioned outburst by saying simply, "I share my friend's anger."

What Senators Biden and McCain understood in 1995 is still true today: the overall effectiveness of U.S. troops depends not only on their skill at arms, but also upon their sense of honor and their respect for human rights.Senior U.S. officials, in and out of uniform, must emphasize this duty and make it a top priority.

That is a lesson, hard-learned in Japan, which should resonate with U.S. forces around the globe: if the U.S. wants to be judged a valued friend and ally, U.S. forces must abide by international law, respect human rights, and be fully accountable for their conduct on and off the battlefield.