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

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 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:

The full book chapter can be found here.