The decision of US President Donald Trump to ban transgender people from serving in the US military in the summer of 2017 prompted a debate about inclusivity of the military, not only in the US but also all over Europe.
While it became clear in the aftermath of the decision that the President would not be able to implement what he called for ‒ the ban is currently before courts and the first openly transgender person joined the US military in February 2018 ‒ the debate manifested two important points. First, human rights cannot be taken for granted and a continued fight for ensuring minority rights is vital. Secondly, there is a clear need to better explain the benefits of diversity and inclusion in general, and in the military in particular.
It seems that during the past years the armed forces of Western countries have been making an effort to gradually become reflective of the societies they serve: women were allowed to join the armed forces, bans on LGBTI people were lifted and an increasing number of people with a migration background and different beliefs enlisted.
Opening-up the military service for ethnic, sexual and gender minorities is the first step to stop discrimination against minority groups. However, more steps need to follow in order to not only allow different groups of society to enlist, but also to create a climate of tolerance and inclusion within the military.
A survey EUROMIL conducted amongst its member associations shows that a dedicated diversity and inclusion policy exists for the armed forces in only five European countries. The most comprehensive overview of the specific situation of LGBT people in the military can be found in the LGBT Military Index, a project launched by the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. The index ranks countries according to their efforts to create inclusive armed forces, considering the respective admission/exclusion and tolerance policies in place. While the index indicates that the overall situation in Europe is much better than in other parts of the world, one can nevertheless see differences between the individual approaches EU member states have.
Undoubtedly, there is still a long way to go to fully integrate ethnic, sexual and gender minorities in the armed forces, to grant them equal rights and opportunities and to fight discrimination and prejudices.
In this regard, EUROMIL advocates for the principle of “Citizen in Uniform”: As such, soldiers should be entitled to the same rights and freedoms as every other citizen in a democratic society. Even in countries where diversity and inclusion policies exist, EUROMIL’s member associations reported complaints about violence, harassment, discrimination or other human rights abuse against military personnel.
However, the positive effects of sensitisation efforts as well as diversity and equality trainings are beginning to manifest themselves. A study by the RAND Corporation found some best practices which have proved to play a key role in ensuring the best possible working and health conditions for transgender personnel. The findings can also be generalised with a view on minorities in general.
Some of the identified best practices are already being implemented in a number of European countries:
Strong leadership support can be observed in the British Army, where Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders is openly championing LGBTI rights within the military and encouraging more LGBTI people to serve in the armed forces, as “the Army would be better off as a diverse service.”
Diversity and inclusion training and education for military personnel are already in place in Belgium, Ireland and Sweden.
Written diversity and inclusion policies as well as specific procedures for gender transitions of service personnel exist in some European countries. Currently a revision of the existing policy is underway in Germany.
Communicating the benefits of an inclusive workforce was also recently debated at the European Parliament’s Security and Defence Subcommittee. A study carried out by the Women in International security (WIIS) Brussels for the European Parliament, analysed the role of women in missions related to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and clearly stated that “promoting women’s participation in CSDP missions and operations is important to sustain the EU’s credibility, to improve effectiveness, to promote equality at home and abroad, to increase the talent pool for personnel, and to make the best use of our financial resources”.
Scientific research indeed clearly makes the case for inclusive leadership. This is well demonstrated by Lora Berg from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, for example, as she warns about the unintended negative effects which exclusion of a certain group of people can have on the security of a whole nation.
In this regard, EUROMIL also believes that military trade unions and professional associations can play an important role. A well-organised social dialogue with the authorities and the representatives of servicemen and -women can support the formulation of good policies and ensure that they do not only exist on paper but are implemented in daily life.
While President Trump’s decision sends a very negative message about the status of human rights to other military institutions and human rights defenders worldwide, we must continue to advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms of military personnel.
In democratic countries, the military serves the people. It should therefore be fully reflective of the society and no group should be directly ‒ by an explicit ban ‒ or indirectly ‒ by a non-welcoming intolerant working environment ‒ excluded from joining the armed forces.
This article was first published in Europe's World.
Emmanuel Jacob is the President of the European Organisation of Military Associations (EUROMIL); Rebekka Haffner is a member of the Steering Committee of Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels
IMAGE CREDIT: Defence Images/Flickr