250 people benefited from a socio-economic reintegration project aimed at providing employment, generating savings, and restoring soil fertility by fighting erosionon Idjwi Island, Lake Kivu.
© UNDP DRC / Aude Rossignol.

Complex Exits from Complex Conflicts: Why United Nations Guidance on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Matters


Glaucia Boyer, UNDP Global Reintegration Focal Point and Co-Chair of the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration

19 November 2019


After more than 15 years working in crisis settings, I thought I had seen it all. However, a visit while on mission to three distanced camps populated with foreign combatants and their families proved I was wrong. Caught in limbo for more than three years since surrendering, the lives of the men, women, boys and girls in these camps seemed to have stopped in time with no solution in sight.

Hardliner disarmed combatants refused to accept repatriation for fear of persecution and a return to the unknown after several decades in exile. Dependents had turned into hostages, many of them mothers, living in fear while their children were denied schooling. No human being, even less children, should ever be subjected to a life like this. 

The people living in these camps were all eventually repatriated with the provision of proper reintegration support, but this situation is not unique. The willingness to abandon violence, absence of negotiated settlement, and the existence of these types of camps demonstrates the urgent need for the revision of the Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards (IDDRS).

Originally launched in 2006 by the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (IAWG-DDR), the IDDRS have provided useful guidance to practitioners for the formal and controlled disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants from armed forces and groups in situations where peace agreements had been signed. They have guided DDR practitioners in planning, designing, implementing and evaluating DDR programmes around the world for over a decade; however, the standards didn’t speak to the complex realities of current armed conflicts.

The search for solutions to armed conflict today has become increasingly militarized, with terms such as “captured”, “surrender”, and “repentant” penetrating the vocabulary of DDR practitioners. In these new contexts where political settlements are harder to reach, new forms of weapons management, local level mediation, and community violence reduction initiatives are more effective at addressing new trends in armed conflict - such as armed group fragmentation and expansion into networks, continuous recruitment and self-demobilization - than traditional DDR approaches. The legal and reputational risks for UN engagement in these situations need to be more carefully integrated into assessments too, helping countries involved to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law.

Moreover, as the complexity of conflict increases, combatants are leaving armed groups in a myriad of ways. Thus, reintegration support needs to be available to those willing to leave armed violence behind not only in post-conflict situations, but also during conflict and in the absence of formal DDR programmes. Community approaches to reintegration also play a fundamental role in preventing recruitment and re-recruitment, significantly reducing violence and paving the way for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.  

Many of these lessons learned and best practices have been captured in the Revised IDDRS, which was  launched on 19 November at a high-level common event in New York and Geneva and streamed on UN Web TV and the UN YouTube channel. The Revised IDDRS is the culmination of almost two years of work by the 25 UN entities members of the IAWG-DDR, which is co-led by the United Nations Development Programme and the Department of Peace Operations. Together, these entities have signed off on new and revised IDDRS modules: UN Approach to DDRLegal Frameworks for UN DDR, The Politics of DDR, and Community Violence Reduction and Reintegration as part of Sustaining Peace. More modules will soon become available in the revamped UN DDR Resource Center. These modules provide up-to-date guidance that will enable practitioners to navigate the complexity of contemporary DDR processes and provide meaningful support to communities and families of ex-combatants as well as women and children formerly associated with armed forces and groups.