The shift under the Biden administration from an emphasis on counterterrorism to great-power competition has only heightened the need for deepening security cooperation with allied and partner forces. Yet despite devoting vast resources to training and equipping these forces, the U.S. government still lacks a strategic framework for ensuring that human rights are mainstreamed into every aspect of security cooperation. As a result, the United States is all too often perceived as having enabled human rights abuses and atrocities committed by its foreign partners.

One way to address this problem is to develop a new approach to security cooperation rooted in the notion of human security, which seeks to put individuals and the safeguarding of human rights at the center of policymaking. Human security approaches focus on elements or conditions that allow individuals and communities to survive and thrive. The United States can improve its track record of security cooperation by including human security in its assessment of partner operations and by integrating the concept more comprehensively in its own training modules.

Developing Human Security Assessments

The United States, like many other countries, has rhetorically embraced the concept of human security, a term that was coined by the United Nations Development Program in 1994. This rhetoric, however, has not been matched by necessary structural and institutional reforms. A hard-security mentality — understood as an emphasis on the use of force and an insufficient consideration of the rule of law — still permeates the planning, conduct, and evaluation of partner-nation security operations.

At present, the notion of human security has not been strategically integrated into U.S. partner-support operations. In 2017, Congress mandated that the Department of Defense (DoD) ensure that capacity building for partner nations promote “the observance of and respect for the law of armed conflict, human rights, the rule of law, and civilian control of the military.” The State Department shares responsibility for promoting human rights in partner nations during security-cooperation activities and uses slightly different authorizing language. More recently, DoD published a comprehensive plan to implement new civilian-harm mitigation and response procedures — (the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, or CHMR-AP), and that plan applies as well to security-cooperation programs.

To build on these efforts, the Pentagon should develop and deploy adaptable assessment frameworks that can provide both baseline snapshots and continued monitoring of the environment in a partner nation or region. A regularly repeated assessment can provide DoD personnel with a more nuanced understanding of changes in the operational environment over time, the tactics that will prove most effective, and criteria by which success can be measured. Assessments can provide greater clarity and help identify more opportunities to engage partner nations on human rights in a way that is more likely to be successful.

A prototype assessment framework, developed by one of us (Linda, with a colleague) for this purpose, focuses on four categories that clarify whether conditions for successfully promoting human security through applied respect for human rights are present in a partner nation’s military. (The framework, which was pending publication by the Institute for Defense Analyses at the time this article was published, is now available here.) The categories — political willingness, absorptive capacity, political stability, and degree of respect for the rule of law and human rights as a quantified value — are evaluated through a series of scaled indicators based on existing data, key stakeholder interviews, and site visits.

No snapshot of a social environment can be complete or precisely predictive, but it can give an indication of possible barriers to cultivating greater human rights protections in a partner nation and indicate what steps might be necessary to mitigate them. For example, if there are codes of ethics that specify rights-respecting behavior, but training and accountability mechanisms are lacking, it is likely that human rights abuses and civilian harm caused by military personnel go unpunished. Having deep knowledge of these issues in a partner nation over time allows for integrated efforts between the DoD, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that tailor the messaging, training, level of engagement, and equipment to maximize results. While our focus here is on U.S. military activities, we believe the human security aspect of security cooperation must be achieved through interagency cooperation.

Integrating Human Security into Training Modules

In addition to integrating the notion of human security into assessments of partner forces, it is crucial to mainstream this concept into every aspect of DoD training. Currently, respect for human rights is included in security-cooperation training programs only as a coursework requirement on the basics of international human rights law. But if human rights are to become integral to the security paradigms of partner nations, then DoD needs to integrate human rights training across its curriculum, including applied practical exercises involving civilian harm scenarios, rather than as an ancillary aspect of one module. This emphasis includes training for its own personnel, more thoughtful emphasis on human security in the design of security-cooperation activities with partner nations, and professional incentives for notable successes in this area.

Human rights training may sensitize a partner nation’s military to the notional rights and wrongs of their conduct, but unless the same training is given to all who are involved in directing, resourcing, and working alongside the military internally, then only marginal gains, if any, will be achieved. Human rights training as a box-checking exercise will not work; it needs to be embedded within a whole-of-government or whole-of-society approach to security. The human security approach, in other words, recognizes that human rights cannot exist without civilian protection, and security cannot exist without the legitimacy conveyed by civilian rights and responsibilities.

Training on human rights should be considered as an integral component of U.S. goals to increase professionalism of partner armed forces and respect for democratic values in those contexts and in an increasingly competitive and anti-democratic global environment. Although doctrine and legal authority promote the democratic values of respect for human rights, the rule of law, and good governance, and offer tactics for implementation in the form of professional modules integrated into required partner-nation courses, there is still no strategy for promoting human rights. If a key goal is to promote democratic values through security cooperation, then U.S. personnel planning and implementing those programs need to have specific knowledge of the obstacles to achieving this goal, and they need to understand available options for surmounting them. Currently, DOD and State are aware that success in this arena has been limited, but there is no strategy to plan, coordinate, and achieve the mandated goals.

Regardless of the quality of the material or capability of U.S. trainers, a quick scan of the core security-cooperation text currently used shows that the module on human rights is oddly misplaced in a curriculum that almost exclusively focuses on equipment, budgeting, and procurement. This placement conveys that it is a required element — added but not valued. Pedagogical experts recommend that such overarching concepts as human rights be mainstreamed to enhance understanding of how they apply broadly and in multiple situations. This incorporates the subject into design, implementation, and evaluation of training that may be about other skills as well.

Mainstreaming human rights concepts might mean, for example, that civilian-protection scenarios are built into training about perimeters and checkpoints, or that a joint operation is disrupted during war games by fictional political unrest that requires highly informed responses to respect the rights and responsibilities in play. Importantly, both approaches require humility and self-inclusion by U.S. personnel. Engagements with partners and allies offer valuable opportunities for learning and knowledge-building for the United States and should not be viewed as one-way transfers of capability. For example, the U.S. and wider international community could improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations by incorporating traditional and communal methods of conflict management, thereby ensuring that the local population is both the agent and referent object of security.

While the advancement of human rights is integral to attaining any of these objectives, military training is neither the most important nor the sole condition that must be met to achieve them.

Although there are variations in the particular rights emphasized and the constitutional structures that provide for democratic governance generally, University of Nottingham Professor Todd Landman rightly noted that “democracy and human rights are grounded in the shared principles of accountability, individual liberty, integrity, fair and equal representation, inclusion and participation, and non-violent solutions to conflict.” Most significantly for human security-oriented cooperation is the commitment to civilian management of the military in order to ensure that sovereign power resides in the will of the people. Different types of democracy, however, place emphasis on different combinations of rights. So, again, the question of what are the objectives of such training has a bearing on the type of training to be provided, its content, and its intended audience.

Military professionalism, in turn, is a critical element for stable civil-military relations and the consolidation of democracy. In civil-military relations theory, the subordination of the security services to civilian control is justified on the basis that civilians, be they elected or working for those who are, have a legal authority and are uniquely accountable under the law and to the electorate.

Within this context, military professionalism may mean that the forces have been recruited, educated, trained, and promoted in such a way as to accept civilian supremacy, oversight, the rule of law, and professional norms. Military professionalism is at the heart of civil-military relations theory, but authors tend to define it in very different ways. The late sociologist Morris Janowitz, who had served as a U.S. Army officer during World War II, defined professionalism in terms of a special skill set, a sense of group identity, and a system of internal administration. The formulation used in our own paper, with its focus on effectiveness, is derived from Thomas C. Bruneau and Floriana Cristiana Matei of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Human rights training within a human security orientation can contribute to higher levels of professionalism, but countries often take a different path to achieve professionalism in their troops. Countries transitioning from military rule to democracy tend to deploy the armed forces on a peacekeeping operation in the hope that they will learn to be professional somewhere else and bring that home. The idea is that troops will learn democratic civil-military relations and professional norms through “osmosis” via contact with other troop-contributing nations that have more-established democracies. The reality is rather different. Countries contributing the greatest percentage of troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations are themselves either in the early stages of democratic transition or are exhibiting signs of hybrid democracy. If a state has succeeded in consolidating its democracy, its troop contributions decline.

There is evidence to suggest that armed forces that generally respect human rights in their own domestic context also largely observe those rights when deployed overseas. If civil-military relations are understood as the relationship between the military, government, and the people, then the focus of human rights education should be upon how adherence to human rights contributes to improvement in that relationship. The placement of human rights training within a broader civ-mil curriculum may contribute to greater stability and security within the partner nation, and by extension improve the reliability and professionalism of troops on peacekeeping operations.

Context Matters

The considerations above lead us to conclude that contextual awareness matters for U.S. security cooperation and that the setting of objectives that reflect that context is imperative. Numerous studies of defense transformation and security sector reform programs have concluded that success is more likely if the partner nation owns the process and the outcomes. Ownership means more than simply the consent of a defense minister, prime minister, or president for a security cooperation initiative to proceed. It relates to the extent to which wider government, society, and the armed forces acknowledge the importance of and are willing to support the program over time. Western efforts to professionalize armed forces across the globe are likely to fail if the curriculum runs counter to the dominant culture (social, organizational, and political) of the partner nation.

So it is necessary to consider how best to generate a “critical mass” supporting reform, both within the armed forces and across the wider government and society. Building an evaluation of a partner nation’s political will and social environment into a human rights assessment is crucial. Generating that critical mass takes time, a resource that is too often downplayed. Achieving the types of strategic objectives outlined above takes longer than the three years a U.S. combatant commander or senior defense officer may be in their post. Addressing the militarization of society can take generations, so a strategic, inter-agency approach by the United States to the advancement of human rights in partner nations is vital.


To achieve the overall goal of human security as described in U.S. national security documents, the United States needs to take a strategic approach to promoting human rights and democratic values in its security-cooperation engagements. In addition to implementing iterative knowledge-building assessments of whether conditions are conducive to these values, it is critical that they be mainstreamed across all training, diplomatic, and development engagements. Opportunities to model, support, assess, and learn about good practices in human security and governance should be sought and shared across DoD, State, and related agencies. Giving U.S. security-cooperation personnel the resources and operating environment to pursue human security as a strategic goal will make it far more likely to yield the expected benefits, both in strengthening the effectiveness of U.S. security partnerships and in nurturing democratic civilian-military relationships in partner nations.

IMAGE: Morocco’s Division General Belkhir el-Farouk (R), Southern Zone Commander, and US Army General Christopher Cavoli (L), commanding general of United States Army Europe and Africa, inspect an honor guard as they arrive for the “African Lion” military exercise at Grier Labouihi military airport in southeastern Morocco on June 9, 2021. (Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)