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DDR in the Context of Offensive Military Operations, Counterterrorism, CVE and Non-Permissive Environments: Key Questions, Challenges, and Considerations

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the chapter, “DDR in the Context of Offensive Military Operations, Counterterrorism, CVE, and Non-Permissive Environments: Key Questions, Challenges, and Considerations,” produced by Vanda Felbab-Brown for the new United Nations University book, UN DDR in an Era of Violent Extremism: Is it Fit for Purpose? (UNU, June 2015), edited by James Cockayne and Siobhan O’Neil.

The United Nations is increasingly asked to undertake or support disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of belligerents in the context of ongoing military operations and counterterrorism (CT) activity and in the absence of a peace deal, treaty, or framework. Somalia provides a crucial example. DDR in the context of ongoing counterinsurgency operations has also been undertaken in by the UN and individual states, including in the government-run program in Colombia for defectors from the leftist guerrilla movement. In Afghanistan, DDR coincided with not only counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, but also with an effort to recruit anti-insurgent militias. Such contexts heighten many traditional challenges for DDR efforts and create new ones. DDR cannot be described as merely an activity to address security threats and dilemmas and to codify agreed-upon postwar security and power arrangements; for it actively changes power dynamics on the battlefield, particularly if DDR programming also involves deradicalization processes and related efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE).

Even if the UN could overcome the strategic obstacles to effective DDR, there are also political and bureaucratic ones created by the web of actors involved in DDR programming and, more broadly, peace operations. Many of the national governments requesting assistance might have only a very limited capacity and resources to implement DDR efforts. And their objectives and designs for DDR might not fully align with UN standards. Moreover, international donors might have multiple agendas or might find DDR in the context of on-going military operations too controversial too fund.

In the context of the increasingly complex nature of current conflicts and bureaucratic and political tensions between those entities that respond to them, three sets of important challenges arise for UN efforts to support and implement DDR in such settings: 1) the neutrality of the agencies and actors conducting DDR processes and the effects of this consideration on the trust, access, and safety requirements of those processes; 2) the extent of local knowledge needed for effective implementation and sustainability; and 3) questions of operational effectiveness, accountability of the programs in relation to their basic purposes, and expectations  of the degree and timing of success. Access and safety imperatives affect many actors – from UN personnel to ex-combatants, government forces, aligned or rival substate actors, international counterinsurgency or counterterrorism forces, and local communities. Rarely will the United Nations have the unfettered or even sufficient access to nationally-run DDR programmes necessary to achieve both an in-depth knowledge in a highly fluid environment or a sufficient level of control as to who enters in DDR programs, who leaves, and what kind of assistance and obligations DDR recipients and broader communities receive. Separation of DDR from detentions and internment might not be clear-cut. Isolating DDR programs from intelligence-gathering operations and efforts to flip combatants to fight against their former comrades might not be easily prevented.

The challenges arise also in the context of the United Nations having expanded the scope of ambitions, obligations, and extent of programming for its DDR-supported efforts in the adoption of the Integrated DDR Standards in 2006. Difficult to implement in even permissive environments, such as after conflict has ended and a peace treaty has been signed, their full execution in non-permissive environments, with their emphasis on voluntary engagement, community involvement, rights and justice focus, and transparency can be particularly difficult. Never merely a technical exercise, but always a highly political matter, DDR has become even more politically sensitive.

In other words, the United Nations is being asked to do more in terms of scope, objectives, and principles of DDR in far less permissive environments with likely far fewer resources. The issues this raises cannot be answered fully in the abstract. Judgments will need to be made with reference to specific and differing contexts. Not all settings of ongoing conflict or counterterrorism operations are equally non-permissive; not all challenges will be equally acute and intense. Accordingly, this think piece does not purport to provide a general solution to the emergent problems, or specific guidance for dealing with each of them.  Its primary purpose is to identify the key challenges and the considerations that must be taken into account in applying the DDR concept in this new challenging environment.   It proceeds as follows: I first review the purpose, evolution, and design of DDR. I then discuss the new context of ongoing military operations and counterterrorism and CVE activities and weak host governments. Third, I detail the challenges that arise regarding: I. neutrality, trust, access, and safety; II. visibility-transparency, local knowledge, sustainability, and handover; and III. implementation, expectations, and accountability. I conclude the analysis by examining the policy implications of the study’s findings.

Key Policy Implications

  • The context of ongoing military operations and counterterrorism activities creates a uniquely difficult environment for any actor, including the United Nations, to undertake DDR activities. Even if the intent of DDR is to reduce conflict and threats to defectors, ex-combatants, and communities, the United Nations, as well as the local DDR agencies, is likely to become involved – or implicated – in the conflict in ways quite different from post-conflict settings. Indeed, in such contexts, the UN might appear as threatening to the insurgent, terrorist, or militia groups as the military operations that target them.
  • In many cases, national actors (at whose invitation a UN DDR effort is likely to operate in such a context) may not be fully aligned with the objectives and principles of IDDRS and they might seek to limit transparency and access. Moreover, national actors may strongly limit the United Nations’ authority over who is sent to the DDR programs and, even more problematically, who is released from them. Bilateral actors engaged in parallel counterterrorism operations might be equally nontransparent. National-level authorities, multilateral security forces, and subnational actors who are sources of candidates for DDR may suffer from multiple and complex capacity limitations.
  • The United Nations might thus find itself supporting a DDR program while having limited authority over it, and yet being associated with a party to the conflict. In such cases, the UN caché of impartiality would be lost with little tangible DDR benefit.
  • Such a context then generates challenges regarding: trust, access, and safety; knowledge, sustainability, and handover to local authorities; and implementation, expectations, and accountability. These uncertainties may undermine the United Nations’ ability to fully implement all of the principles of IDDRS.
  • The overlap between DDR and detentions/internment of “ex-combatants” and supporters might be strong and highly problematic as well as challenging from policy and programming perspectives. Of course, not all settings of ongoing military operations and counterterrorism activities are equal and the intensity of these challenges will also vary with specific contexts.

The overriding question becomes what comparative advantage the United Nations has in delivering DDR – and in some cases, DDR with CVE focus – in such contexts. From an effectiveness or humanitarian perspective, could any other actor perform better? Or, if the United Nations does not take on the DDR effort, will anyone carry it out at all? If no, however small or imperfect, would a UN-led DDR program have positive safety implications for communities and humanitarian implications for ex-combatants and defectors?

Sometimes, the United Nations might resolve to make the judgment that no engagement is better, and that limiting the burdens of responsibility and resource-drain of delivering DDR in such non-permissive environments is preferable to complicity in policies that do not improve the safety of communities, the lives of ex-combatants, and/or peace dynamics. Other times, however, some tangible improvement in the lives of combatants and communities or incremental improvement in stability via DDR programming will be viewed as better than no engagement.

The fact that a perfect implementation of all IDDRS standards might not be possible should not prevent the UN from urging other actors to do better in terms of effectiveness and human rights. But the aspiration and guiding principle should also remain to move steadily to the full implementation of IDDRS and enhancement of peace dynamics and safety of individuals and communities as possible.

Specific policy implications thus include:

  • Even when a United Nations mission may have limited control and even input as to who is eligible for DDR programs, it should demand, and assist in, the establishment of operational criteria for eligibility. In the absence of input into the assessment of participant eligibility, the United Nations should also seek to establish at least feedback mechanisms, to ensure it is aware when those sent to the camps clearly to do not meet the criteria or when many are unfairly and inappropriately excluded.
  • A United Nations mission should demand clear criteria for release of ex-combatants from DDR camps and clearly defined term limits for when ex-combatants must be released. These decisions cannot be arbitrary, nor should they be left to national authorities. The United Nations should insist that minimum due process standards for ex-combatants should be respected.
  • To the extent that local authorities are unwilling to agree on release criteria and term limits and continue to exercise control over who is released from the DDR camps, the United Nations should be willing to re-label the programs “detention” or “internment” and run DDR efforts in parallel with assisted detention. Donors might be reluctant to support programs labeled by the UN as detention/internment. Donors may also be reluctant to support UN DDR efforts that coordinate with local detention and internment programming, seeing such coordination as tacit support for illegal and inhumane treatment. Yet, in such scenarios, it is important for the UN to consider whether the conditions of the captured, detained, or defected combatants would be worse in the absence of international support.
  • In order to maximize knowledge in the context of limited access and particularly since many competing political agendas might be operating at the same time, UN DDR field offices  should be well staffed with analytical support personnel. They should seek to cultivate as broad a network of local and relevant international interlocutors as possible. Channeling engagement solely through national authorities or subnational power centers, such as provincial entities, is not adequate. A systematic and purposeful effort needs to be made to reach out to communities receiving ex-combatants and community actors, such as civil society, community elders, NGOs, women’s groups, and the private sector.  A special outreach effort should be made to marginalized groups, such as particular ethnic groups, tribes, subclans, or slum residents. Many of these actors may not be honest, objective, or benevolent, but collecting a broad range of views and information will help create a crucial information baseline from which to monitor and evaluate DDR efforts.
  • Particularly if DDR efforts also involve CVE, consideration should be given to whether equity in the DDR programs requires that the same type of programs are delivered to all participants, or individualized designs for each DDR candidate are possible. Such individual-specific design is likely to increase effectiveness, but tailoring programming cannot be allowed to create new resentments, rivalries, or discriminatory access. It will also be far more resource- and personnel-intensive.
  • Although access to communities is likely to be highly constrained, a strong effort should nonetheless be made to deliver services to victims and noncombatants that are comparable to those delivered by DDR programs to ex-combatants so that perceptions of injustice or moral hazard dynamics are not created.
  • Not only should the United Nations appropriately staff DDR efforts, in such a context, such DDR missions should have dedicated multiyear budgets. Reliance on short-term funding by bilateral donors is likely to exacerbate many of the effectiveness, implementation, administration, and accountability challenges. Additionally, the international community should not simply succumb to potential extortion by local authorities to fund detentions and DDR, but rather demand that local authorities contribute some resources to these efforts.
  • A strong effort should be made to foster a culture of honest evaluation and monitoring of DDR efforts. Specifying as clearly as possible what the expected outcomes are is important, as is understanding the causal relationships of the conflict. But it is equally important for stakeholders to expect difficulties and realize that implementation might not achieve all of the desirable outcomes or satisfy all principles. That also means that identification and disclosure of problems does not ipso facto lead to sanctions, such as defunding of the UN effort or the lack of promotions for personnel. Instead, such monitoring should produce a discussion of how to mitigate inadequacies and whether the existing military and political context in fact allows for improving the program’s deficiencies.

The full book chapter can be found here.

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