Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with military advisors detailed to the Department of State, May 31. Photo by Freddie Everett
By Commander Andrew Stafford
“The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world,” according to the renowned scholar Hannah Arendt. Security force operations that pose these risks and the actions of security forces to meet short-term goals may be at odds with adherence to human right norms. The strongest national security policy is one that harnesses all the nation’s values, including the protection of human rights, while partnering with countries that share our vision of a free and prosperous world.
Military detailees serve in important roles throughout the Department of State. In the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s (DRL) Office of Security and Human Rights (SHR), detailees from the Department of Defense (DoD) leverage their military expertise to elevate human rights to a central role in U.S. security assistance policy, where their institutional knowledge and experience shapes Bureau decision-making. DRL/SHR’s detailees draw upon their expertise to ensure human rights inform the bureau’s policy-making, while acquiring a greater experience in diplomacy and foreign policy. One example of detailee experience influencing policy is when SHR implements the Leahy Law which prohibits security assistance to foreign military units where there is credible information that the units committed human rights violations. Military detailees serve as crucial advocates in implementing this vision.
Currently, SHR hosts two military detailees, as well as one alum of the program—who is now in the Civil Service—to promote adherence to human rights norms. These military officers build and maintain the connective tissue between the Department’s and DoD’s human rights efforts, putting their knowledge to work in everything from implementing the Global Fragility Act, and administering the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), to scouring INTERPOL alerts for cases where foreign governments use INTERPOL red notices against human rights advocates.
“[O]ur military detailees are crucial to our work. Over the years, I have been consistently impressed at how quickly SHR’s detailees have learned the ropes here at [the Department], mastering not just key policy issues, but also the Department’s inner workings,” said SHR Director Charles Blaha.
When detailees return to the Pentagon, they do so with a finer appreciation of statecraft, a greater sensitivity to policy nuance, and new perspectives on approaching strategic efforts.
A recent trip to the Auschwitz Memorial by SHR detailee Commander Andrew Stafford highlighted the important intersections between human rights and security policy. During the visit, Sept. 22 Stafford provided consultation in support of SHR’s atrocity prevention and security sector governance efforts, met with Holocaust studies experts, and listened to stories from the descendants of Auschwitz survivors.
“The experience transformed the theoretical policy work I do in our office into a personal conviction,” stated Commander Stafford, conveying how stories such as the ones he encountered at Auschwitz serve as valuable reminders that atrocity prevention, education, and risk mitigation are critical in saving lives.
Visiting Auschwitz, or any Holocaust site, can be a difficult experience. Initially, one may struggle to comprehend the scale of this atrocity. The piles of victims’ shoes and suitcases on display and the landscape on which one million victims perished leaves one speechless. This experience is typical, but nonetheless, can be harrowing for the people who visit the site each year.
According to Stafford, however, this feeling may be especially powerful, and can become deeply personal. The site at Auschwitz contains numerous pictures of uniformed Nazis operating the concentration camp. These photos show officers performing a variety of duties—from guards to doctors—and make an immediate impression. Questions arise about the role of the military and what, or more importantly, whom, does it serve, and how.
Auschwitz is a fitting example of how the machinations of the state and the military can result in the worst violations of human rights. For Stafford this visit was a chance to focus on SHR’s own efforts in preventing human rights violations in the security sector. In the Nazi regime, the military actively supported and implemented a system to perpetrate genocide. Meetings with members of the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities and tours with educators at Auschwitz helped demonstrate the true breadth of the atrocities committed.
Following the visit, SHR launched a new portfolio integrating human rights considerations into security sector governance. This portfolio leverages the military experience of detailees with the human rights expertise in DRL to promote human rights, justice, and accountability, in security sector governance efforts. This portfolio aims to correct instances where other policy objectives are used to countervail human rights considerations by ensuring that human rights are a vital part of the decision-making process during the development and execution of security policy.
Human rights abuses not only violate American values, but also threaten the country’s national security interests. To educate policymakers on how to incorporate human rights into security policy, SHR incorporates input from civil society, including local non-governmental organizations, advocates, as well as academic institutions. Additionally, SHR promotes policies and programs affecting the management and oversight of foreign partner security forces to promote transparent and accountable governance consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law.
The service of SHR’s military detailees reinforces mutual strategic interests for both the Department and DoD. Relationships built during a tour in DRL form key touchpoints as alumni re-enter military leadership positions with enhanced knowledge of how the inclusion of human rights considerations within military objectives help advance U.S. interests, uphold international norms, and reinforce U.S. global leadership. Moreover, the time in DRL directly demonstrates the need to develop holistic worldviews that ensure the security sector continues to operate for the benefit of the people.
Commander Andrew Stafford is a Naval officer and Department of Defense detailee at the Department of State