By Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee
and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation
“These measures are critical in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces by addressing the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities and creating a diverse military that fully represents our nation’s citizens […] for the sake of our country, we can and must do better.”
– Congressman Elijah E. Cummings
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a stalwart voice in the U.S. Congress, passed away on October 17, 2019. Representing Baltimore, Maryland, his many legislative initiatives included groundbreaking work to advance diversity and inclusion in the security sector alongside Helsinki Commissioners and other global changemakers.
In 2008, Rep. Cummings and other Members of Congress joined forces with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin to establish the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC). Rep. Cummings’ goal was to increase the number of people of color and women in flag officer rank by focusing on military recruitment, retention, and promotion. The 2011 MLDC final report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military,” proposed 20 recommendations to develop policy goals and metrics to manage and sustain diversity at the U.S. Department of Defense.
Following the release of the report, Rep. Cummings, Sen. Cardin, and other Members of Congress held a 2012 Congressional Military Diversity Forum with MLDC Chairman General Lester Lyles, where the general raised the urgency of implementing the report’s recommendations to maintain force levels in concert with increasing diversity in the United States.
Helsinki Commission efforts—including legislation by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Cardin on the incorporation of women in combat divisions and on increasing diversity in the intelligence and national security workforces—have complemented and built upon Rep. Cummings’ work.
Rep. Cumming’s efforts also were integral to the 2013 launch of the Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector program, led by the German Marshall Fund and supported by Helsinki Commission leadership. Findings from the MLDC underpin the initiative, which brought together militaries, Members of Congress, staff of the Department of Defense, other government officials and experts from Europe and the United States to review and take stock of diversity and inclusion best practices in the security sector.
“There must be an assigned and qualified individual on the command level to oversee military issues including discrimination, racial profiling, and hazing. In particular, the military needs to have a more effective response against hazing cases to better identify and respond to dangerous situations. Women, minorities, and every single soldier should be able to achieve their goals when joining the military.”
– Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mission Critical 2013
As part of the inaugural Mission Critical event in 2013, Congressman Cummings highlighted lessons learned from the MLDC and the need to address discrimination and other problems, including hazing, in militaries to increase diversity and ensure the success of missions critical to national security.
Efforts to address these and other issues have continued at subsequent Mission Critical events, most recently in June 2019. Continuing to build upon the MLDC foundation, the event focused on diversity and inclusion issues related to personnel, the future of security, and technology in the security sector.
Speakers echoed the sentiments of Rep. Cummings years before. Then-German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen stressed the value of religious diversity in the armed forces, sharing how she was working to get the Bundeswehr’s military chaplaincy to include Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams instead of only the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains. Tjorven Bellmann of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the importance of recruitment methods that appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. He also noted that discrimination in the military remains a barrier for racial minorities, women, LGBT+, and other groups. Nida Ansari, a State Department detailee to the Helsinki Commission, discussed U.S. Government inclusion efforts around faith communities.
Ursula von der Leyen’s elevation to the Presidency of the European Commission offers hope for highly-placed advocacy of inclusive policies and concrete strategies beyond the security sector and broader dissemination of practices shared during Mission Critical.
Congressman Cummings’ vision of a more inclusive security sector, and more inclusive societies generally, at home and abroad will not soon be forgotten. Signs of progress include examples like General Lori Robinson, whose distinguished career included serving as the first woman to command a major Unified Combatant Command when she led United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from May 2016 to May 2018. The rarity of her example, however, only underlines the work that Mr. Cummings well knew was still required.
With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article.