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As NATO celebrates its seventieth anniversary, it also looks toward how it can meet the challenges posed by a security atmosphere that is radically different from when the alliance was established in 1949. Mass migration, ethnic conflicts, diseases, and human trafficking transcend national borders and challenge traditional, state-centric approaches to security. Promoting peace and stability in such a complicated global environment requires the alliance to pay closer attention to the safety of individuals—an approach known as human security.

Although the term “human security” is conceptually complex, it is essentially an approach that gives primacy to people and their intricate social and economic interactions.1 Human security emphasizes not only the protection of civilians, who constitute most conflict-related casualties and are often forced to flee their homes to escape violence, but also, in the case of NATO, the welfare of personnel. This essay focuses on the second of these two elements, particularly as it relates to increasing inclusion and diversity in the alliance. Numerous recent studies have noted that inclusive, diverse, and well-trained forces are better positioned to manage the complexities of the global security environment.2

Accordingly, the alliance should endeavor to build on existing human security initiatives and establish new approaches in three core areas. First, NATO should increase diversity and inclusion at the organization’s headquarters, in its commands, and in the armed forces of NATO allies. Second, the alliance needs to tackle issues of misconduct. Third, NATO should support the mental resilience of personnel deployed on alliance operations.

Issues at Stake

Over the past few years, NATO allies and their partners have placed an increased emphasis on the importance of inclusive and diverse forces. Broadly speaking, such teams are more innovative, process information more carefully, allow greater access to communities, and tend to be perceived as more legitimate by local populations in places where NATO missions are deployed.3

In light of these and other benefits, NATO has endeavored to increase diversity and inclusion by improving its policies, services, recruitment strategies, training, education, communication, leadership, monitoring, and reporting.4 This includes the establishment of initiatives designed to advance United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, such as the creation of the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives, the development of a mentoring program for women working at NATO headquarters, and the promotion of practical cooperation on gender issues through the NATO Science for Peace and Security Program.5

Lindsay Coombs
Lindsay Coombs is a PhD student in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, a policy officer at the Canadian Department of National Defense, and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Notably, diversity and inclusion encompass more than just achieving a gender balance. They are also about ensuring equal opportunities and a workplace free from discrimination, “regardless of sex, race, ethnic origin, religion, beliefs, nationality, disability, age or sexual orientation,” in the words of NATO officials Patrice Billaud-Durand and Tara Nordick.6 Among other things, the alliance has worked to promote such a workforce by developing diversity and inclusion action plans, initiating a merit-based recruitment system that respects the diversity of alliance partners, and establishing an internship program for young graduate students.

Despite these efforts, however, progress has been slow. According to the NATO secretary general’s 2018 annual report, women represent just 27 percent of personnel across the organization and 25 percent of senior leadership positions.7 Although this is a slight increase from 2017, when women accounted for 26 percent of NATO’s workforce and 20 percent of leadership roles, it is apparent that the alliance has some catching up to do. In the UN, women represent 43 percent of personnel across the organization and 35 percent of the senior leadership.8 Moreover, there are more NATO staff between the ages of forty-six and fifty-five than in any other bracket, indicating a lack of youth employment.9 Ultimately, homogeneity in the alliance can impede the effectiveness of operations, hinder outreach to local populations, and undermine the credibility of the institution.10

Relatedly, NATO must continue to advance its efforts to combat sexual violence, both internally and externally. Due to the destructive nature of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, as well as other harms experienced by civilians in armed conflict, the protection of civilians has been a central element of NATO missions for many years. Efforts in this regard have included integrating the protection of civilians and related measures into the planning and conduct of NATO-led operations; adopting the Military Guidelines on the Prevention of, and Response to, Conflict-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence; establishing the NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians; and identifying and implementing lessons learned on safeguarding civilians.11

It is evident that the alliance has undertaken much work to protect civilians and combat sexual and gender-based violence. However, it has made little progress in eradicating misconduct perpetrated by personnel deployed on NATO operations. The alliance indicated its intention to launch a policy on sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in June 2019, but as of October 2019, the policy had yet to be unveiled. Moreover, unlike the UN, NATO provides no publicly accessible information on allegations of SEA or reporting methods. Altogether, NATO’s approach to tackling this problem to date has not been robust.

With regard to the human security of personnel deployed to NATO operations, considerable research has recently been conducted to examine deployment stressors and related mental health issues.12 NATO forces are routinely engaged in military operations across the globe and are frequently exposed to situations that could lead to psychological harm. For example, personnel who encounter child soldiers can face significant moral and psychological dilemmas, in part due to the simultaneous perception of child soldiers as both threats and victims. This dichotomy can cast doubt over how NATO forces should treat these children. In turn, encounters with child soldiers may have significant and potentially long-lasting psychological effects on personnel deployed to NATO operations. This can reduce both the effectiveness and the readiness of a mission.13

NATO’s Science and Technology Organization has produced technical reports to help alliance partners identify training and education resources to enhance the development and mental resilience of their personnel.14 Additionally, various NATO education and training providers, such as the NATO Center of Excellence for Military Medicine, have held conferences on force health protection. These conferences have contributed to the sharing of best practices in mental health training and education.

Yet comparative research on deployment-related mental health support across NATO partners has shown that many personnel continue to face similar barriers to accessing mental healthcare.15 These difficulties are linked to issues such as the insufficient availability of mental healthcare providers and an ongoing stigma associated with mental health issues that prevents personnel from seeking treatment.16


It is clear that NATO can do more to strengthen human security in the alliance, both in the organization’s headquarters and during operations. The following four recommendations are intended to help inform this process.

First, when it comes to the diversity of NATO staff, the alliance should shift its conceptualization from a problem of underrepresentation to one of overrepresentation. Conversations about increasing diversity and inclusion often focus on the underrepresentation of equity-seeking groups, particularly in the case of women. Because underrepresentation affects women in NATO and not men, focusing solely on this aspect effectively puts the burden of achieving gender equality on women.

As noted by Rainbow Murray, an expert on gender politics, “even if reducing the overrepresentation of men is a necessary corollary of increasing women’s presence, it is never presented as the primary goal with its own intrinsic benefits.” Murray continued to state that “the focus on women’s underrepresentation has the unintended consequence of framing men as the norm and women as the ‘other.’”17 Accordingly, shifting the discussion from under- to overrepresentation not only highlights the weaknesses of current approaches but also presents an alternative way to challenge the harmful effects of overrepresentation. Reframing this discussion would require an acknowledgment that the overrepresentation of a particular group can negatively affect the quality of representation in NATO, in part because it restricts the talent pool to a specific section of society.

Second, the alliance should emphasize a more holistic approach to discussions of diversity and inclusion. Both academic literature and official NATO documents tend to focus on increasing the representation of women. Although the representation of other equity-seeking groups is sometimes acknowledged, it is generally not discussed at length. Accordingly, there is an urgent need for greater intersectionality in these discussions, which can complement the work being done to support women.

Third, increasing awareness of, and transparency on, SEA is critical. This should be a central consideration as NATO moves forward with the publication and implementation of its forthcoming policy on SEA. The alliance should provide regular updates on the implementation of the policy, the ways in which the rights and dignity of victims have been prioritized, mechanisms for engaging with alliance partners, and improvements to strategic communication for training and education.

Fourth, NATO must develop and disseminate new tools to train personnel deployed to alliance operations to better recognize mental health problems in their teams. Adequate access to mental health support in a theater of war is essential to ensure a resilient and effective force. This is particularly important in missions where uniformed mental health care providers may be difficult to recruit and retain, or where they are highly dispersed due to the geography of the location.18 Such training will help break down stigma associated with mental health problems.

Ultimately, conflict has changed, and, therefore, the manner in which NATO prepares for and conducts operations must also change. To promote peace and stability in today’s global security environment, NATO must adjust its initiatives by emphasizing a more holistic approach. This includes strengthening human security in NATO as an organization.

Focusing on increasing diversity and inclusion, tackling misconduct, and supporting the mental resilience of personnel deployed to NATO operations can significantly boost the alliance’s ability to tackle contemporary security challenges. Altogether, emphasizing the human dimension of conflict in these ways can enable NATO to harness the appropriate instruments and strategies to maximize the safety and stability of all people involved in conflict.


1 “Human Security in Military Operations (JSP 1325),” United Kingdom Ministry of Defense, January 15, 2019,

2 David R. Segal, Mady Wechsler Segal, and Brian J. Reed, “Diversity and Citizenship in Modern Military Organization,” Turkish Journal of Sociology (December 2015): 45–65,; Robert Egnell, “Gender Perspectives and Military Effectiveness: Implementing UNSCR 1325 and the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security,” PRISM 6, no. 1 (March 2016): 73–89,

3 Marta Ghittoni, Léa Lehouck, and Callum Watson, “Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations: Baseline Study,” Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, July 2018,; and David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016,

4 “The NATO You Might Not Know—Security and Defence Beyond the Old Basics,” NATO, last modified March 6, 2018,

5 “Gender Balance and Diversity in NATO,” NATO, last modified November 16, 2011,; and Patrice Billaud-Durand and Tara Nordick, “Driving Diversity at NATO,” NATO Review Magazine, March 7, 2019,; and “Women, Peace and Security,” NATO, last modified July 10, 2019,

6 Billaud-Durand and Nordick, “Driving Diversity at NATO.”

7 “The Secretary General’s Annual Report 2018,” NATO, March 14, 2019,

8 Billaud-Durand and Nordick, “Driving Diversity at NATO.”

9 “2016 Annual Diversity and Inclusion Report,” NATO,

10 Corinna Horst, Gale A. Mattox, and Laura Groenendaal, “Raising EU and NATO Effectiveness: The Impact of Diverse Boots on the Ground,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, July 9, 2018,

11 “Protection of Civilians,” NATO, last modified June 28, 2018,; and “NATO Policy for Protection of Civilians,” NATO press release, July 9, 2016,

12 “Mental Health in the Canadian Armed Forces,” Canadian Department of National Defense, last modified April 16, 2019,; Megan M. Thompson, “Moral Injury in Military Operations: A Review of the Literature and Key Considerations for the Canadian Armed Forces,” Defense Research and Development Canada, March 2015,; and Brett Litz and Shira Maguen, “Moral Injury in Veterans of War,” PTSD Research Quarterly 23, no. 1 (2012),

13 Lindsay Coombs, “Are They Children? Or Are They Soldiers? Preparing the Canadian Military for the Contemporary Security Environment,” Royal Canadian Military Institute, General Sir William Otter paper 16, no. 1, December 2016.

14 “Mental Health Training,” NATO Science and Technology Organization, final report of Research and Technology Group 203, January 2016,$$TR-HFM-179-ALL.pdf.

15 Eric Vermetten et al., “Deployment-Related Mental Health Support: Comparative Analysis of NATO and Allied ISAF Partners,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 5 (2014): 1–2,

16 Vermetten et al., “Deployment-Related Mental Health Support”; and “Mental Health Training,” NATO.

17 Rainbow Murray, “Quotas for Men: Reframing Gender Quotas as a Means of Improving Representation for All,” American Political Science Review 108, no. 3 (August 2014): 520,

18 Vermetten et al., “Deployment-Related Mental Health Support”; and “Mental Health Training,” NATO.