Is Human Rights Training Working with Foreign Militaries? No One Knows and That’s O.K.

4669815 (1)

Training a foreign army is not like training your own military. This seems obvious, but the differences are often not accepted in practice. For example, there’s time constraints. Donors want instantaneous improvements in combat lethality and compliance with international laws. The tactical, operational, and professional skills that take a soldier years to learn in a Western military are expected to be mastered by local forces in months. Then there is the scale of the challenge. While Western militaries have strong institutions steeped in traditions and rule of law, partner forces are trying to create soldiers and institutions in a weak state while under fire. Training your own military in the West is a matter of routine, but training a foreign army in a corrupt state may feel like building a plane while dogfighting.

A 2019 U.S. government report discerned that the Pentagon and State Department were failing to evaluate the success of their human rights programs with foreign militaries. Strangely, this may be a good thing. After years of research and first-hand experience with delivering foreign military training, we suspect most programs would still pass a check-box evaluation, regardless of their long-term effectiveness. This is because most evaluation criteria employed in military assistance missions usually reflect a bias towards short-term, tactical activity, such as hours spent providing PowerPoint slides on human rights.

A recent War on the Rocks article by Melissa Dalton and Tommy Ross identified American assistance to Uganda as an example of the paradox of trying to make a partner force that is effective and abides by international laws and norms. However, Uganda’s military isn’t the only problem child. American security assistance to Afghanistan, Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Somalia, and many more countries, suffers from various problems and traps ranging from creating Fabergé Egg militaries (expensive to build but easy for insurgents to break) to assisting powerful counter-terrorism partner forces that commit atrocities.

Many military personnel who have performed security assistance missions to fragile states speak of the problem of oversight. Too often, advisers end up training in a vacuum with few ways of knowing whether the troops that have sat through their courses on international humanitarian law are applying their knowledge on the battlefield. ‘Flying blind’ is clearly a problem that poses questions about the transparency, accountability, and strategic success of these missions. But perhaps the long-term question to resolve is different. Perhaps it is: Why can’t we build professional and effective partner forces that don’t need to be monitored to comply with international humanitarian law?

A Triumph of Tactics over Strategy

At its core, security force assistance has bold strategic ambitions. There are many documents that define and outline it as an attempt to help foreign security forces in a weak state become more competent, capable, sustainable, committed, confident, and accountable. However, in many cases, the actual design of these programs translates these aims to the military tactical level and then stops. Accordingly, “success” becomes more readily synonymous with combined arms maneuver, and metrics can be narrowed to troop attendance levels for basic training, their ability to conduct patrols, and being able to shoot their rifles straight.



The overly tactical approach has consequences. Firstly, tactical capacity alone will not build effective, accountable, and locally legitimate armed forces in fragile states. Fragmentation, sectarianism, corruption, and the normalization of violence by a regime or within a state shape how security forces behave towards civilians, and inform their responses to conflict and insecurity. Without a conscious effort to design and measure the effect of training in a broader way, there is a risk that a program that effectively delivers a highly capable but abusive and/or sectarian local partner force might still read as a success on the evaluation sheet. Without the imperative to compare that assessment to those sitting on the desks of political, diplomatic, or aid personnel, it is easier to conclude that the model is working and that any failures sit elsewhere. The contextual challenges of weak states mean that building a military that succeeds on the battlefield cannot be done while they are simultaneously losing the trust of citizens under their protection.

The second half of this problem is that the military contribution itself needs to span the tactical to the strategic level to be successful in these complex environments. For example, military advisers consistently misdiagnose poor human rights compliance as a problem that stems from a lack of basic training. Using this logic, the more local soldiers that you train to be tactically proficient, the better their behavior on the battlefield. As a result, U.S. and European militaries are currently struggling to “professionalize” host-nation militaries while only offering technical solutions. As U.S. Army Gen. (ret.) Carter Ham, then-commander of U.S. Africa Command, described prior American security force assistance efforts in Mali: “We were focusing our training almost exclusively on tactical or technical matters … We didn’t spend probably the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and a military ethos.” He was speaking a year after the 2012 Malian coup, which was led by a recipient of American military training.

The narrow, incomplete, and tactical approach to these missions is why we’re actually glad that they haven’t been declared a measured success. The irony is, we think that security force assistance could actually have long-term institutionalized impacts if the focus was shifted towards the strategic and political levels. Moving away from programs designed to turn out tactically proficient fighters towards producing units who serve their local populations and foster healthy civil-military relations isn’t impossible. However, it does require a bigger vision for the small groups of military advisers hoping to develop a capable partner military unit in an incapable state.

Talking the Talk Without Walking the Walk

The problem of a partner military attempting to deviate from the laws of war is much more common than most are willing to admit. Since 1997, state forces have been responsible for about 23 percent of violent acts against civilians globally — not militias or rebels. Local legitimacy — aided by respect for human rights — is a crucial part of establishing a protective relationship between militaries and civilians. Successful security assistance programs should do more to bolster and improve civil-military relations and increase the incentives for good and inclusive governance, including professionalization that fits their army and contributes to the strategic vision of the state.

We’ve seen some good proposals come out of the U.S. Institute for Peace Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. They have argued for “graduated security sector assistance,” in which the United States conditions its engagement with fragile states on the partner reaching reform milestones leading to more inclusive governance. “Positive conditionality” has also been put forward as a way to ensure that tactical training does not outpace defense institutional reforms in fragile states, although Dalton and Ross note that when partners are invested in a corrupt status quo this may be a difficult sell.

We contend a new vision for security assistance to weak states is needed that incentivizes real reforms in civil-military relations. This is no easy task. An “unprofessional” government typically perceives the creation of a “professional” army as risky, because it might threaten its rule in the future. We have written about the benefits of viewing the training of foreign militaries as a peacebuilding activity in more depth elsewhere, but in essence our argument is that when security forces are politicized, factionalized, and fragmented, international assistance needs to structure itself as a form of peacebuilding across fragmented security sectors and between militaries and the civilians they serve. The inclusion of local power brokers in these programs could foster collaboration and buy-in from formal and informal actors. Increasing the local legitimacy and cooperation over training could in turn contribute to other efforts to stimulate reforms towards more inclusive governance.

Local ownership is another piece to this puzzle. As Denis Tull points out about Mali in International Affairs: “Interveners routinely bemoan a lack of local ownership [while] Malians are exasperated by what they depict as the invasive and paternalistic behavior of external actors who negate the existence of Malian expertise and agency.” Speaking to local civil society about their own aspirations for — and experiences of — security provision is also crucial in making sure training is having a visible and meaningful impact for the people who are meant to be the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts. Despite years of security assistance and U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Mali, the security situation has deteriorated, leading to a worsening humanitarian crisis. The European Union Training Mission in Mali has trained over 14,000 personnel since 2013, and yet the Malian armed forces stand accused of human rights violations and ethnic bias, particularly when it comes to their links to self-defense forces and militias operating in the central and northern regions of the country.

Crucially, international humanitarian law training should not be a check-the-box exercise that simply satisfies legal and policy requirements back home. The Leahy amendment already mandates that U.S. military equipment and training cannot be provided to foreign forces who commit serious human rights abuses. While no comparable law exists in the United Kingdom, assistance must be vetted against Overseas Security and Justice Assistance guidance, balancing the aid and risk, relative to mitigation measures. But if training local forces is all part of a broader enterprise aimed at building effective and legitimate troops, it needs to be put front and center as a strategic requirement that is monitored and evaluated during all engagement phases.

Thankfully, the success of these efforts is not unmeasurable, even in the short term. Metrics could include: Did members from all the country’s ethnic groups attend the course? What was the level of participation from marginalized populations and genders? Did the hierarchies visible in interactions between course members match their ranks, or did certain individuals/groups dominate the course? Were interactions between attendees from different groups positive or negative overall, and did this change as the course progressed? Efforts to maximize the interaction of groups who might have poor or problematic relations should be boosted and rewarded, rather than measuring butts-in-seats and recall of key skills and concepts. Finding ways of documenting levels of local buy-in for training courses and identifying whether there is genuine local demand for human rights training is essential to understanding whether the courses have any real chance of achieving lasting behavioral change.


It might be a blessing in disguise that defense departments will not be able to refuse change on the basis of flawed evidence that their current approach works — because apparently they haven’t been gathering any. Now that the Government Accountability Office  has recommended clear timelines and plans for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of human rights training for foreign security forces, this is a good opportunity to examine what these programs are delivering. It opens a discussion on the value of socializing foreign military personnel through positive interactions with American troops. Such thinking would help recalibrate the approach to delivering better outcomes from the tactical to the strategic level. The 2020 deployment of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade to Africa presents such an opportunity to focus on mending grievances and institutionalizing context dependent professionalism within the militaries they are likely to mentor.

Most importantly, Western military advisers need to take ownership and drive this change. If the people delivering the training don’t actually believe that protecting civilians is more central to addressing instability than tactical arms drills, they will struggle to convince their partners. If not, expect plenty more hour-long human rights PowerPoint sessions to come.



Emily Knowles is an associate fellow at the Oxford Research Group and was the director of the Remote Warfare Programme, Oxford Research Group, 2016-2019. She has conducted research on military partnerships throughout Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East since 2014 including fieldwork in Iraq (2017), Afghanistan (2017), Mali (2018), and Kenya (2018).

Dr. Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is a U.S. Air Force officer serving as an assistant professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and is a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He has conducted over 200 interviews with Western and foreign military personnel that have either provided or received military aid, assistance, and training.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force Academy, or U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Image: Defense Media Activity – Europe Africa (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Douglas Parker)