Status of forces agreement

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A status of forces agreement (SOFA), according to the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Technical Information Center website [1], is "an agreement that defines the legal position of a visiting military force deployed in the territory of a friendly state."

The page continues,

"Agreements delineating the status of visiting military forces may be bilateral or multilateral. Provisions pertaining to the status of visiting forces may be set forth in a separate agreement, or they may form a part of a more comprehensive agreement. These provisions describe how the authorities of a visiting force may control members of that force and the amenability of the force or its members to the local law or to the authority of local officials. To the extent that agreements delineate matters affecting the relations between a military force and civilian authorities and population, they may be considered as civil affairs agreements." [2]

Reportedly, not all countries that host U.S. military bases are satisfied with the terms of their SOFAs. An article on the National Catholic Reporter website states,

"...Many Koreans believe the agreement is unfair to South Korea. 'The U.S. army in Korea defames our national sovereignty and commits many crimes, but we can't do anything about it except watch because of the unfair accord, the Status of Forces Agreement,' [Union of Catholic Asian] News quoted Fr. Bartholomew Moon Jung-hyon as saying at a memorial Mass for the girls killed by a U.S. armored car last June [2002]. Criticism of the current Korea-U.S. agreement has targeted how it handles criminal cases. The agreement gives U.S. military authorities primary jurisdiction over crimes committed by its soldiers while on duty in South Korea. Activists in Korea note that a similar agreement with Japan was substantially revised in 1995 following a U.S. soldier's rape of a Japanese schoolgirl in Okinawa. Korea, however, has won few concessions. [3]"

But "substantial" is not how Chalmers Johnson, president of Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI), characterizes that revision of the U.S. SOFA for Okinawa:

"By far the greatest SOFA-related popular outrage in Japan concerns art. xvii, which covers criminal justice...Opinion in Okinawa is virtually universal that it should be thrown out, whereas the U.S. military clings desperately to its every stipulation and in 2003 even threatened to rescind a slight concession it made after the abduction and rape of a twelve-year-old Okinawan school girl on September 4, 1995, by two Marines and a sailor from Camp Hansen. [Italics added.] The offending words are contained in art. xvii (3) (c): 'The custody of an accused member of the United States armed forces or the civilian component over whom Japan is to exercise jurisdiction shall, if he is in the hands of the United States, remain with the United States until he is charged.' This means that Japanese authorities investigating a crime committed in their country cannot have exclusive access to a suspect held by the U.S. military until Japanese prosecutors have actually indicted him in court. It also means that the Japanese police are hobbled in carrying out an investigation and that prosecutors may thus be reluctant to indict an American serviceman because of insufficient evidence....All servicemen in Okinawa know that if after committing a rape, a robbery, or an assault, they can make it back to the base before the police catch them, they will be free until indicted even though there is a Japanese arrest warrant out for their capture [4].

The U.S. military's treatment of the environment in host countries is also at issue, according to Johnson:

"[Article iv of the SOFA states], 'The United States is not obliged, when it returns facilities and areas to Japan on the expiration of this Agreement or at an earlier date, to restore the facilities and areas to the condition in which they were at the time they became available to the United States armed forces, or to compensate Japan in lieu of such restoration.' To many Japanese and all local government officials this is a deeply resented invitation to the U.S. military to pollute anything it wants to and evade responsibility for cleaning it up. The U.S. military’s record on environmental protection is abominable. [5]."

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