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Intercultural Challenges for ‘Citizens in Uniform’



At the NATO summit in Istanbul in June 2004, Germany pledged an increased military presence in Afghanistan and agreed to train Iraqi police officers in German police academies. This is just the latest of several examples of Germany’s growing commitment in the realms of law enforcement and military protection and intervention.  In fact, the Bundeswehr, the German army, has supplied equipment and provided transportation services for United Nations peace missions since 1973. A groundbreaking decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in 1994 found it possible for German armed forces to be deployed abroad. Some 9,000 soldiers are currently deployed on peace missions under the framework of either the United Nations (UN) or NATO.  In addition to the Bundeswehr, the Federal Border Police and the police forces of the Länder (the German states) have participated in UN peacekeeping missions since 1989. The police officers in the service of the UN make key contributions to the development of rule-of-law structures in the countries concerned. Since 1991, a total of approximately 145,000 Bundeswehr personnel and 3,100 police officers have been deployed to troubled areas including the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan.  

These missions are undertaken as ‘nation building’ or ‘peacekeeping operations’ which shows the great responsibility that Germany and its partners have to the respective countries. Good behavior of troops and police and respectful treatment of the population are key to the missions’ success and can only be achieved through professional personnel who are sensitive towards the culture and the people of the countries in which they are stationed.

In this paper we want to focus on the education of German military and police forces, especially in the field of human rights and intercultural competence. We first examine the education that is currently provided to soldiers and officers. We will then assess these findings and give recommendations for improvement. 


The importance of and commitment to human rights education in the Bundeswehr and police forces must be understood in the context of German history. According to Member of Parliament Jörg van Essen of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), one of the most important lessons of the Third Reich and the blind faith in authority of that period is that the military should be strictly bound by the law. When the Bundeswehr was created in 1955, the main idea was to build a military consisting of ‘citizens in uniform’ who were integrated into society. It was the intention in the 1950’s to avoid the creation of an overly powerful army that could become a ‘state within the state.’ To that end, transparency and the exchange between the Bundeswehr and the German society were of great importance, an emphasis that still survives and is most visible today in the fact that Germany still has a conscription army.

The integration of the Bundeswehr into German society and the transparency of military action are also reflected by the system of parliamentary control of the military. In addition, as Klaus Michael Spiess, a legal lecturer for the Bundeswehr, explains, the Bundeswehr never established a court martial system, meaning that members of the military are bound by the same laws and fall under the same judicial system as the rest of the German population. The gross human rights violations of the Nazi era were a motivation for this society and government to turn to strong legal frameworks and international law both for the military and for the broader governing of Germany to prevent such horrors from ever happening again. 

International Standards

In the last fifty years, Germany has committed itself to many international agreements concerning human rights, including the landmark United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the European Convention of Human Rights of 1950, and the more recent statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC). A number of other agreements specify in greater detail international standards for troops or policemen such as the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Convention against Torture. International laws and conventions are incorporated into the German legal framework, and Germany has ratified all of the major conventions and agreements regarding human rights. Germany also cooperates with various international actors concerning specifically the education in human rights for the Bundeswehr and the police. Mr. Ekkehard Strauss, Human Rights Officer at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), explains that the OHCHR together with the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) developed training material that defines a certain international standard for human rights education.

Human Rights Education in the Military

“International human rights law is binding on all States and their agents […].” 

The Bundeswehr is strictly bound to the German Constitution, or the Basic Law, which guarantees the most fundamental human rights. The education of every soldier in these basic rights is part of the philosophic concept of the ‘Zentrum für Innere Führung’ (Center for Internal Leadership), the institution responsible for setting the general principles of the Bundeswehr. According to Mr. Spiess, the idea was to have an army of well-educated and self-reflective individuals unlikely to practice “unconditional obedience.” Article 11 of the Soldiers’ Law explicitly states that a soldier must not follow an illegal order. According to Mr. van Essen the Bundeswehr’s mission is to produce soldiers with “brains over brawn” and to give the lower ranks a comparatively high degree of education and responsibility. René Grigat, a company commander at the Julius-Leber Barracks in Berlin, asserts that it is the extensive education for the lower ranks that distinguishes the Bundeswehr from other armies. Based on his experience in a German-U.S. joint unit in Büchel, Grigat contrasts the Bundeswehr education with that of the U.S. armed forces, believing the latter to concentrate on the education of officers and leading personnel while neglecting the lower ranks.

Human rights are part of the general education for every soldier with seven hours of basic training directly relating to human rights for all conscripts. Human rights education clearly plays a more crucial role for troops sent on missions abroad. Mr. van Essen explains that in addition to a more intense legal education, especially in the field of international law, soldiers going abroad are educated about the political background and trained in the culture, religion, and basic language skills of the country. According to Mr. Spiess the training for troops going on missions abroad includes one week of training at the army barracks and one or two weeks on a special training compound such as the UN education center of the Bundeswehr in Hammelburg. In addition, there is one week of training for officers and so-called multipliers (e.g., soldiers in the media section) in Koblenz at the headquarters of the ‘Zentrum für Innere Führung’.

Human Rights Education for the Police

“Law enforcement officials are obliged to know, and to apply, international standards for human rights.” 

Human rights education of the German police cannot be generally assessed because education falls under the jurisdiction of the Länder, the German states. In some of the states, human rights education is part of the training of police officers and reflects the commitment to international laws which mandate certain behavior and legal knowledge by law enforcement officials.  For instance, Claudia Lohrenscheit of the German Institute for Human Rights is working with the Landespolizeidirektion (State Police) of Berlin on a pilot program for human rights education which started in 2003.  Ms. Lohrenscheit leads daylong workshops with another non-police trainer and two members of the Polizei on the topics of international human rights standards, Islam and human rights, and terrorism and human rights. These voluntary workshops use an experiential approach that encourages participants to reflect on their own experiences of either witnessing or taking part in human rights violations while serving in the police and then pushes them to think of alternative approaches to these situations. The participants also learn international and national human rights law.

Despite differences on the state level when it comes to domestic policing, the human rights education for police forces sent on missions abroad is the same throughout the country, according to Mr. Zimmermann, Head of the Commissioner’s Mission Implementation Strategy Planning Unit of the UNMIK (UN Mission in Kosovo) Police in Pristina. Police officers who volunteer to serve abroad must have worked for at least eight years, ensuring a certain level of experience and professionalism. The leading personnel are required to attend an additional ‘Police Commander Course on Non-Military Crisis Management’ at CEPOL (the European police academy).  The course includes lectures in ‘Human Rights’ and in ‘Leadership in a Multicultural Environment,’ both conducted in the English language.

The education and build up of police forces became a special area of German expertise, as former Ambassador and special envoy of Germany to Afghanistan Hajo Vergau explains. Germany was called upon by the Interim Administration of Afghanistan in 2002 to serve as the lead government to assist in the reconstruction of the Afghan police force. Gunnar Theissen and Irene Plank of the Federal Foreign Office explained that in the past two years, German police have been instrumental in reestablishing the Police Academy for new recruits in Kabul and have served a ‘coordinating role’ with trainers from other countries on curriculum development and teaching at the Academy. Human rights are a key topic in the curriculum at the Police Academy. Currently about 35 German police officers are serving in advisory positions in Afghanistan. In situations like the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the education of the German police is exported and put into practice elsewhere, underlining both the importance and the reach of human rights education for all police officers in Germany.

General Assessment of Human Rights Education

In the course of numerous interviews, site visits, and correspondences with

representatives from a broad range of government and non-government agencies, the general picture of concern and practice of human rights education in Germany’s military and police operations is encouraging at the least. We were welcomed by a Member of Parliament, members of the Federal Foreign Office, several people working for the Bundeswehr, and numerous other influential individuals in the field of human rights education, and each person was eager to communicate with us.

Germany is an international leader as a nation that has ratified international conventions and takes practical steps to implement those standards. The firm dedication to human rights in Germany and to educating members of the military and police on those standards is exceptional and therefore offers a case study for improvements.  Furthermore, it tests what can be achieved in a strong nation with a strong commitment to human rights.

While it is tempting to compare Germany to other countries, one should be careful in doing so, particularly with respect to the United States. Until now, the German military was virtually never deployed to the front line for involvement in major combat operations. Rather, German troops enter countries such as Afghanistan when violent military combat, killing, and open conflict is largely done, and therefore the Bundeswehr finds itself in a far more comfortable position to emphasize human rights and intercultural awareness.

Intercultural Component

“Intercultural conflicts will be the main challenge to the world in the 21st century. The dialogue between the cultures will become the ‘strategy for peace in the 21st century.’”  

Training in intercultural competence and communication should be seen as an indispensable part of the human rights education. The following section will briefly explain the concept of intercultural education and its link to human rights. We will then provide an overview of the current education in intercultural competence and communication, problems that are linked to what we call the ‘manual mentality,’ and recommendations for future improvements.

Andreas Berns, who is involved in a project on intercultural communication called ‘Marco Polo’ at the Bundeswehr academy, clarifies that concept as follows: Intercultural relations include communicative processes that are of great importance in the phases leading to violent conflicts and can be a crucial element in the prevention of conflicts. Productive intercultural communication is only possible on the basis of intercultural competence.

According to Mr. Berns, the prejudices and hostilities which arise from interactions of two cultures that define themselves as different are not necessarily unavoidable; they only exist where people feel uneasy and threatened by a culture defined as ‘other.’ The simplistic solution that people should simply be more open and talk to each other will not suffice. Different cultural backgrounds are very likely to produce conflicts and misunderstandings and that is why soldiers and police forces have to be professionally trained in the field of intercultural understanding. Intercultural competence has to be based on a strong self-identity and a clear idea about one’s own values. One crucial aspect of intercultural competence is to accept that no culture is inherently superior to others and that the intercultural dialogue has to be conducted on the basis of equality.

For the German Bundeswehr and police these topics are rather recent ones. As noted, German participation in missions abroad only became possible in the mid-1990 under the umbrella of the UN or NATO. Hence, for the first time in more recent history German troops are confronted with very different cultural backgrounds and environments in places like Afghanistan, the horn of Africa, or the Balkans. For all these missions the clear policy of the German government is not missionary work or to demonstrate any sociopolitical, economic, or cultural superiority. Rather, missions are undertaken as ‘nation building’ or ‘peacekeeping.’  Given this reasoning, Germany and its partners have a great responsibility to the respective countries. German troops and police forces do not want to be seen as occupying forces but rather be welcomed by the population. This demands a high degree of professionalism and sensitivity towards the culture and the people—which, in turn, depends on intercultural competence.

Current Intercultural Competence Education

According to Oskar Matthias Freiherr von Lepel from the ‘Zentrum für Innere Führung’ headquarters in Koblenz, training in intercultural competence is part of the one-week education for higher ranks that takes place in Koblenz. In order to stimulate a greater sensitivity towards other cultures, lectures are given by experts who are mostly German officers with experiences in the various countries and their cultural backgrounds. All members of the Bundeswehr are given certain manuals during their training which cover basic language and certain codes of behavior to follow when encountering people of other cultures.

As with human rights education, it is hard to make a general statement concerning education in intercultural competence for police forces due to the federal structure of Germany. In some states the police have started to include intercultural awareness in their training programs. For instance, in the state of Brandenburg, freelance police adviser Carl Chung was part of a program funded by the European Union (EU) to train people of immigrant backgrounds to become trainers of the police on intercultural issues. Norman Weiss, research fellow at Potsdam University, assessed that the program is a good start but that the four-day training during a three-year education is far too short and needs to be further developed.

All police officers who are sent on missions abroad attend a two- to three-week training in the political and cultural background of the country. Ms. Plank explains that this is mainly done by teachers from the German police academy and police officers who have returned from serving abroad. According to Mr. Zimmermann, intercultural competence is part of this training program—through a two-hour lecture or a role-play, for instance—but it is not a major topic relative to the total amount of training time.


The intercultural component in the training of German military and police

is currently of a high standard. According to Jörg van Essen, the intercultural sensitivity in the Bundeswehr is one of the strongest among the world’s national militaries. However, we think that improvements are still necessary and would like to offer some suggestions.

Firstly, we think that intercultural competence should not be taught separately from human rights education. The two fields are linked to each other and often lead to contradictory solutions which must be acknowledged and discussed during the education process. For instance gender equality and the rights of women are not necessarily part of every culture, yet they are central tenets of international human rights standards. In order to make the right decisions and to find compromises, soldiers and police forces have to be aware of such potential contradictions.

Secondly, we strongly recommend including intercultural awareness education in the basic curricula for all conscripts and not only teaching it to higher ranks sent on missions abroad. Soldiers in lower ranks are the ones that are frequently in touch with the population.  The horrible pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq illustrate, through depicting the actions of some U.S. military personnel, the dangers inherent when lower-ranking soldiers lack the training and perhaps even the intellect and understanding necessary to uphold morals, values, and human rights even in the most trying of circumstances abroad. We believe that practical and intensive intercultural education arms personnel, regardless of rank, with the personal understanding and intercultural sensitivity to maintain their own values when confronted with threatening situations.

Thirdly, in the long run we would like to overcome the ‘manual mentality’ for matters of intercultural competence. Members of the military and police are accustomed to conducting themselves according to manuals, but the level of intercultural awareness that Mr. Berns advocates cannot be found in a manual. A member of the military cannot easily check a manual or pamphlet to determine how to conduct himself when confronting a situation, culture, or religion that is quite different from his own.  Human rights guidelines have been enumerated in manuals for military and law enforcement officials, most notably in the United Nations Professional Training Series, to which both the Bundeswehr and German police refer, but intercultural competence cannot be fully summed up in such a way.  Intercultural competence is therefore much more difficult to teach or engender in a person, but this sort of competence is shown to be absolutely necessary.


We have found that the history, composition, and current trends of the German military and police provide a very good basis for the implementation the above recommendations. As the military is concerned, first, the structure and philosophy of the Bundeswehr is strongly based on the lessons of German history of the Nazi era. In the 1950’s the Bundeswehr was strictly limited to serving as a defensive force, but the internal values and structures instilled in that time prove helpful today for human rights education and intercultural competence in the German army. The ‘citizens in uniform’ concept has always emphasized a comparatively high basic education and abstract thinking which is of practical use on missions abroad. Second, the Bundeswehr has also been familiar with other cultures and backgrounds through regular maneuvers with the American, British, and French forces based in Germany. Under the umbrella of NATO, German troops were also in touch with a number of other cultural backgrounds—for instance, through military training with Turkish troops in a joint NATO force. A third and more recent development is the growing number of foreign-born people within the ranks of the Bundeswehr and the police, especially so-called ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union that came to Germany in the 1990’s.

Policemen, for their part, are in touch with citizens from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in their everyday work in Germany. The social complexity of Germany with its increasingly multicultural population demands greater intercultural awareness and sensitivity on the part of the police. With migration to Germany for jobs since the 1960’s, the fact cannot be doubted now that Germany is an ‘immigration country.’ In addition, the police, like the Bundeswehr, have more and more people from different ethnic and cultural origins within their own ranks. A good education in intercultural competence and communication for everyday German police work would also facilitate officers’ training for missions abroad. Few policemen are currently deployed on missions abroad compared to members of the military, but the status of Germany as a leading nation in police and security issues makes it likely that these numbers will rise in the near future.

Looking Ahead

While the mission in Afghanistan is far from being accomplished, there are already new tasks and challenges waiting for the German military and the police in different parts of the world. For one, after the United States government turned over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, 2004, both President George W. Bush and Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi asked for NATO to help in training the Iraqi military and police. Germany stands as a logical candidate to take a leading role in police training and rebuilding security forces in Iraq.

Despite short-term pressures weighing on the Bundeswehr and Polizei, we see our recommendations in this paper as a long-term plan to improve the education and hence the work of military and police forces abroad. We do not suggest the creation of one more international standard or guidebook but rather a new focus on the general education and personality of every individual soldier and police officer. 





Berns, Andreas: project leader for ‘Marco Polo,’ Bundeswehr Academy for Information and Communication (AIK), Strausberg. Interview conducted on June 24, 2004.

Chung, Carl: freelance adviser to the police in Berlin and Brandenburg, Social Pedagogical Institute ‘Walter May,’ Berlin. Interview conducted on June 28, 2004

Grigat, René: commander of the 5th battalion, Julius Leber Barracks, Berlin. Interview conducted on June 28, 2004.

Lepel, Oskar Matthias Freiherr von: Director of Section 4, Zentrum für Innere Führung in Koblenz. Interview conducted via telephone on June 30, 2004.

Lohrenscheit, Claudia: educational manager at the German Institute for Human Rights, Berlin. Interview conducted on June 24, 2004.

Plank, Irene Maria: Police Reconstruction Afghanistan, International Cooperation against Drugs and Organized Crime, Police Cooperation, Federal Foreign Office. Interview conducted on June 24, 2004.

Spiess, Klaus-Michael: legal instructor of the section 5, Zentrum für Innere Führung, Strausberg. Interview conducted on June 24, 2004.

Strauss, Ekkehard: Human Rights Officer, Deputy Head of Unit for Europe, Central Asia and Northern America, OHCHR, Geneva. Interview conducted via email on June 30, 2004.

Theissen, Gunnar: Police Reconstruction Afghanistan, International Cooperation against Drugs and Organized Crime, Police Cooperation, Federal Foreign Office. Interview conducted on June 24, 2004.

van Essen, Jörg: parliamentary manager of the FDP-faction in the German Bundestag, Berlin. Interview conducted on June 25, 2004.

Weiss, Norman: research fellow at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Potsdam. Interview conducted on June 29, 2004.

Zimmermann, Hans-Martin: Head of the Commissioner’s Mission Implementation Strategy Planning Unit, UNMIK Police, Pristina. Interview conducted via email on July 1, 2004.


Hansen, Wibke: academic assistant, research section, Zentrum für internationale Friedenseinsätze, Berlin. Lecture ‘Zivilpersonal in Friedenseinsätzen’ given at the UN-Conference in Potsdam on June 25, 2004.

Vergau, Hajo: Ambassador and special envoy of Germany to Afghanistan. Lecture ‘Sicherheitssektorreform Afghanistan’ given to the German Association for the United Nations (Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen, DGVN) on June 29, 2004.


Berns, Andreas and Roland Wöhrle-Chon (2004): Von der Zivilisierung der interkulturellen Beziehungen, in: Österreichische Militärzeitschrift (ÖMZ), No. 1, 2004.

‘A 12-Point Guide for Good Practice in the Training and Education for Human Rights of Government Officials,’ in: Amnesty International Library, No. 2, 1998.

‘Afghanistan – police reconstruction essential for the protection of human rights,’ in: Amnesty International Library, No. 3, 2003.

‘International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement – a pocket book on human rights for the police,’ United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Geneva.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)


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