Dear Brigadier General Ortega,
I am writing to you on behalf of myself and other former officers of the BDF, and on behalf of the over 400 citizens of Belize and civil society organizations who have signed a Change.org petition to ensure that the matter of sexual abuse and assault in the BDF is fully investigated, and the culture of violence against women in the BDF is changed.
I also write as a follow-up to interviews given by you to various media houses on January 31st, 2020. In those interviews you stated that the Belize Defence Force would conduct an investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment of recruits while in training at the Belize Defence Force, Price Barracks.
According to you, a special investigative team has been assigned by the Ministry of National Security, led by Assistant Superintendent Sherlette Ramclam and including Inspector Shaida Mckenzie, Josephine Garbutt, and retired Commissioner of Police Gerald Westby, the chairman of the Civilian Complaint and Review Board.
While you stated in the interviews that you were unaware of what abuses had occurred, and explained that you were awaiting complaints to make their expected way up the chain of command, you assured Belizeans that the investigation would provide answers and recommendations for actions.
As you know, although the Defence Act does not empower you, or the BDF to independently deal with cases of criminal complaint nor to try any criminal case, it does give you the power to independently convene a Court of Inquiry to address the administrative matters which exist. I applaud you if your intention is to utilize those powers.
What is unclear is the role of the Ministry’s “special investigative team”, in investigating any criminal complaints which exist, and whether this team will address the endemic culture of violence against the women in the BDF, as well as some of its men.
You have a legal duty of care for the Force’s members and its former members – and what is not being addressed is the following:
Did you convene a Court of Inquiry to deal with the allegations of abuse and assault, and if so, what is the outcome; and if not, why not? What procedures will the Belize Defence Force take to ensure that these allegations, and similar allegations in the future are properly addressed and by when? And what resources would be needed to rectify any gaps in the procedures to ensure confidential reporting and swift action?
Belizeans expect that the severity of these abuse and assault allegations are a Force priority and that by now you have personally ensured, as the Commander of the BDF and leader of men and women, that not only are you fully aware of what is occurring on your camps and on Regular Force and Volunteer bases, but that you are moving to deal with the matter expeditiously. With all due respect, what you should not and cannot do is to emulate Pilate and try to wash your hands of the problem.
It is imperative that there is rapid response and transparency in how these matters are being addressed by the Belize Defence Force to protect our sisters, daughters, mothers and even more silently our brothers, fathers and sons, who have signed up to protect our country and who have been obliged to endure abuse in silence and shame.
While there are matters of the Force that do not admit civilian interference, these current allegations are criminal complaints and reveal a culture of abuse and assault, which require a systematic change which the Belize Defence Force on its own cannot bring about.
Right now the Belize Defence Force’s ability to protect its own is being portrayed as inadequate, and it is clear to citizens that the Force needs the assistance of independent experts to address this critical situation.
As a proud graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy, I am sure that “Serve To Lead” is at the core of all decisions you make as an officer. And you are now required to demonstrate that leadership, Commander.
Mistakes have been made under your watch and that of previous leaders of the BDF.
As former officers, rank force members, recruits and administrative staff of the BDF and the families and friends of those under your leadership, there is only so much we can do to ensure they are protected as they work day and night to protect us.
We have the right to expect that if “Shoulder to Shoulder” means anything, then you will act to ensure what is in the best interests of all those over whom you have commanded.
We await a public response from you so that we may be able to assist you and our valued BDF in strengthening the vulnerabilities which exist in your Force and in turn, exist in our society.
Managing Director, Our Circle and
Co-Chair International Family Equality