A status of forces agreement (SOFA) is an agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country. SOFAs are often included, along with other types of military agreements, as part of a comprehensive security arrangement. A SOFA does not constitute a security arrangement; it establishes the rights and privileges of foreign personnel present in a host country in support of the larger security arrangement. Under international law a status of forces agreement differs from military occupation.
While the United States military has the largest foreign presence and therefore accounts for most SOFAs, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and many other nations also station military forces 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.
Terms of operation
A SOFA is intended to clarify the terms under which the foreign military is allowed to operate. Typically, purely military operational issues such as the locations of bases and access to facilities are covered by separate agreements. A SOFA is more concerned with the legal issues associated with military individuals and property. This may include issues such as 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 bases and personnel. 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.
Host nation concerns
In many host nations, especially those with a large foreign military 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, a U.S. military AVLB bridge-laying vehicle on the way to the base camp after a training exercise accidentally killed two girls. Under the SOFA, a United States military court martial tried the soldiers involved. The panel found the act to be an accident and acquitted the service members of negligent homicide, citing no criminal intent or negligence. The U.S. military accepted responsibility for the incident and paid civil damages. This resulted in widespread outrage in South Korea, demands that the soldiers be retried in a South Korean court, the airing of a wide variety of conspiracy theories, and a backlash against the local expatriate community. As of 2011, American military authorities are allowing South Korea to charge and prosecute American soldiers in South Korean courts. After three brutal rapes and an arson case in 2011, convictions in South Korean courts occurred. The soldiers are, or will soon be, jailed in South Korean facilities. Soon after the rapes and other instances, the peninsula wide military curfew was reinstated.
A similar incident occurred in December 4, 2004, when 31-year-old U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Christopher Van Goethem serving as a Marine Security Guard at the U.S. embassy in Bucharest, Romania, while driving his Ford Expedition, lethally collided with a taxi carrying Romanian singer Teo Peter. Van Goethem departed Romania within a few hours after the accident, under the terms of his diplomatic immunity, before local investigators had the opportunity to question him and conduct tests on his blood alcohol level but many Romanians viewed his abrupt departure as a slap in the face and an effort to shield the Marine from justice. The Marine was later cleared by a court martial of negligent homicide.
However, most crimes by servicemembers against local civilians occur off duty, and in accordance with the particular SOFA are considered subject to local jurisdiction. Details of the SOFAs can still prompt issues. In Japan, for example, the SOFA includes the provision that service members are not turned over to the local authorities until they are charged in a court. 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. Another issue is the lack of jury trials in Japan, previous to 2009 all trials were decided by a judge or panel of judges. Currently, Japan uses a lay judge system in some criminal trials. For these reasons American authorities insist that service members be tried in military tribunals and reject article 98 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
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 United States.
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.
Visiting forces agreement
A visiting forces agreement is similar to a status of forces agreement except the former covers only forces temporarily in a country, not based there.