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A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is an agreement between a country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country.



While the United States military has the largest foreign presence and therefore accounts for most SOFAs, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Korea, and many other nations also station troops abroad and negotiate SOFAs with their host countries. In the past, the Soviet Union had SOFAs with most of its satellite states. While most of the United States' SOFAs are public, some remain classified.[1]

Terms of operation

The SOFA is intended to clarify the terms under which the foreign military is allowed to operate. Typically, purely military issues such as the locations of bases and access to facilities are covered by separate agreements. The SOFA is more concerned with the legal issues associated with military individuals and property. This may include issues like entry and exit into the country, tax liabilities, postal services, or employment terms for host-country nationals, but the most contentious issues are civil and criminal jurisdiction over the bases. For civil matters, SOFAs provide for how civil damages caused by the forces will be determined and paid. Criminal issues vary, but the typical provision in U.S. SOFAs is that U.S. courts will have jurisdiction over crimes committed either by a servicemember against another servicemember or by a servicemember as part of his or her military duty, but the host nation retains jurisdiction over other crimes.[2]

Host nation concerns

In many host nations, especially those with a large foreign presence such as South Korea and Japan, the SOFA can become a major political issue following crimes allegedly committed by servicemembers. This is especially true when the incidents involve crimes, such as robbery, murder, manslaughter or sex crimes, especially when the charge is defined differently in the two nations. For example, in 2002 in South Korea, two girls were accidentally killed by a U.S. military AVLB bridge laying vehicle on the way to the base camp after a training exercise, and the soldiers involved were tried under U.S. criminal jurisdiction. The court martial panel found the act to be an accident and acquitted the service members, citing no criminal intent or negligence. The U.S. military accepted responsibility for the incident and paid civil damages. A U.S. military court-martial acquitted U.S. soldier who drove the vehicle on negligent homicide charges. This resulted in widespread outrage in Korea, demands that the soldiers be retried in a Korean court, the airing of a wide variety of conspiracy theories and a backlash against the local expatriate community.[3]

However, most crimes by servicemembers against local civilians occur off duty, and in accordance with the local SOFA are considered subject to local jurisdiction. Details of the SOFAs can still prompt issues. In Japan, for example, the U.S. SOFA includes the provision that service members are not turned over to the local authorities until they are charged in a court.[4] In a number of cases, local officials have complained that this impedes their ability to question suspects and investigate the crime. American officials allege that the Japanese police use coercive interrogation tactics and are concerned more with attaining a high conviction rate than finding "justice". American authorities also note the difference in police investigation powers, as well as the judiciary. No lawyer can be present in investigation discussions in Japan, though a translator is provided, and no mention made of an equivalent to America's Miranda rights. As of 2008, jury trials do not yet exist in Japan (but are scheduled to start in 2009), so current trials are all bench or multiple judge trials. For these reasons American authorities insist that service members be tried in military tribunals.

Political issues

The political issue of SOFAs is complicated by the fact that many host countries have mixed feelings about foreign bases on their soil, and demands to renegotiate the SOFA are often combined with calls for foreign troops to leave entirely. Issues of different national customs can arise – while the U.S. and host countries generally agree on what constitutes a crime, many U.S. observers feel that host country justice systems grant a much weaker set of protections to the accused than the U.S. and that the host country's courts can be subject to popular pressure to deliver a guilty verdict; furthermore, that American servicemembers ordered to a foreign posting should not be forced to give up the rights they are afforded under the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, host country observers, having no local counterpart to the Bill of Rights, often feel that this is an irrelevant excuse for demanding special treatment, and resembles the extraterritorial agreements demanded by Western countries during colonialism. One host country where such sentiment is widespread, South Korea, itself has forces in Kyrgyzstan and has negotiated a SOFA that confers total immunity to its servicemembers from prosecution by Kyrgyz authorities for any crime whatsoever, something far in excess of the privileges many South Koreans object to in their nation's SOFA with the U.S.[5]

To many U.S. observers, the fact that most accused criminals eventually end up being tried in a local court and found guilty proves that the system is working; to some host country observers, it reinforces the perception that the SOFA protects the guilty and makes the exceptions more glaring.

See also


  1. ^ Bruno, Greg (October 2, 2008), U.S. Security Agreements and Iraq, Council on Foreign Relations,  
  2. ^ Pike 2005
  3. ^ News articles on South Korean teenagers run over US military vehicle,, 2002,, retrieved 2008-08-22  
  4. ^ US-Japan Status of forces Agreement, 19 January 1960 (Article XVII, Section 5c)
  5. ^ Scott Snyder (December 18, 2002), "A Call for Justice and the US-ROK Alliance", PacNet (Center for Strategic International Studies) (53A),, retrieved 2008-05-05  

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