Rethinking DDR: the possibilities of post-conflict military integration

Dr Miranda Melcher completed her PhD in Defence Studies at King’s College London. Her research focusses on the negotiation, writing, and implementation of civil war peace treaties. In this post, she shares 'golden rules' for post-conflict military integration - an alternative to conventional 'DDR' processes.

Miranda Melcher

Assuming all combatants wish to follow a ‘DDR’ route risks ignoring the complexities of the battlefield situation, individuals’ specific grievances, and post-conflict economic realities. DDR may continue to be relevant in some circumstances. But if we’re to see greater success in ‘sustaining peace’, our scholarship and practice should move beyond one-size-fits-all solutions…’

Civil war peace treaties are the result of months (even years) of secretive, tricky, and tense negotiations. Their signing is heralded with international press releases, photo ops, and sweeping declarations of peace and unity. However, most ceasefire declarations and many peace treaties do not result in peace. Civil wars have a high recurrence rate of 30-50% – too high, for a form of political violence impacting millions. We need to examine peace treaties and processes in further detail, therefore: querying existing frameworks, and learning from past experience.

For civil wars to restart, there need to be at least two groups of people willing and able to use violence to achieve their ends. Many peace treaties include entire sections aimed at turning combatants into civilians to prevent this circumstance. In this blog, I consider existing, and alternative, methods for doing so. Specifically, I advocate offering choice to combatants on all sides: becoming civilians, or joining an integrated military. In the process, I contribute to conversations from the Civil War Paths network regarding conflict transformation, and query possible theories of conflict change (in line with theme four of this year’s blog series).

The standard solution

The standard method for reintegrating combatants is via Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) programmes. These involve combatants going to organised assembly areas, turning in their weapons and uniforms, returning to their hometowns, and acquiring a civilian job. The first two stages are usually overseen by an external military actor and can take some time, depending on the conflict’s scale the country’s geography. The third stage is often supported by cash grants, apprenticeship schemes, and educational training, and usually takes place over multiple years.

Most frequently, this programme is carried out for ‘rebel’, rather than ‘government’, combatants. ‘Government’ forces may undertake some reform process, but usually within the bounds of continuing national military structures. DDR has been implemented in a range of cases, producing reams of policy guidance and research in the process. There is room for improvement on all of these stages, but also room for scepticism about this ‘theory of change’ itself.

Considering the alternative

DDR is often a hard sell. Why give up your weapons and career when your opponent gets to retain theirs? What if, instead of this one-sided approach, ex-combatants on all sides were offered the same choice? Namely, to either demobilise/disarm, or join an integrated military force employing their wartime skills in a peacetime context?

This alternative of military integration has been implemented in some cases, but with varying degrees of success and little scholarly attention. My PhD investigated how to negotiate, write, and implement peace treaties creating integrated post-conflict militaries. I argue treaties can be negotiated and written to enable military integration during the initial peace. In what remains of this blog, I outline ‘golden rules’ for post-conflict military integration from my comparison of the Angolan and Mozambican peace processes, where this alternative to DDR was implemented.

Post-conflict military integration: five golden rules

Comparing the implementation of the peace treaties in Angola and Mozambique alongside the academic scholarship on DDR reveals some ‘golden rules’ for successfully lowering the risks of combatants choosing to return to dyadic violence. This section will outline those strategies, with examples from the Mozambican and Angolan experiences.

  1. Equality of process.

    The key to successful peace is to treat all sides equally. All combatants should undergo the same process for making and recording demobilisation decisions. This is usually done at uniform ‘assembly areas’: where external guarantors (like UN peacekeepers) register combatants’ demobilisation choices, and confiscate weapons for those opting for civilian status.

  2. Context-specific preparation.

    It’s not as simple as just inviting combatants into a process, however. For, even willing participants can get frustrated with the logistics of demobilisation/integration processes. Successful peacebuilding requires forethought. Waiting times in assembly areas, for example, can last months. So providing housing, food, hygiene, and medical supplies is critical. This means taking context (specifically, geography) into account. Angola has an intense rainy season, for instance. Peacebuilding teams need to prepare for sturdy housing requirements, otherwise desertion becomes a significant risk (as the experience of Angola’s poorly-prepared UN peacekeeping mission shows).

  3. Equity of experience.

    Equity of experience is also important. Not all armed groups have the same capacities. Some combatants may arrive at assembly areas with little more than a sidearm; others, with standard-issue kits. In Mozambique, for example, RENAMO rebels arrived at assembly areas following fifteen years of guerrilla warfare, and had limited supplies for their time there. Meanwhile, FRELIMO combatants had received Soviet Union support during the conflict, and came to assembly areas with effective supplies. Equity of experience was more important than equality of provision in this case. This meant providing RENAMO rebels with greater assembly site support than FRELIMO combatants – even if this might be considered a form of unequal treatment. Because the alternative (one group’s experience being worse, and therefore deemed unfair) could provoke antagonism. UN peacekeeping forces’ adaptation to differing levels of need amongst Mozambican combatants was a crucial strength, which kept the assembly areas’ processes functional.

  4. Civilian opportunities.

    All sides must have access to a fair ‘civilian route’ (as Santiago Sosa has demonstrated elsewhere on this blog). All combatants opting for civilian status should enjoy equal opportunities for financial support and training. And this support should be delivered according to equal timescales, and terms/conditions, for each combatant group.

  5. Integrated military rank.

    All combatants opting to join an integrated military should receive equal pay, equal opportunities for progression/promotion, and equal payment terms. Issues of rank can create obstacles during negotiations, as in Mozambique where both Government (FRELIMO) and rebel (RENAMO) hierarchies wanted to keep high rank in the integrated military, even though Government/rebel generals had undergone different selection processes during war. FRELIMO generals were reluctant to recognise RENAMO generals as equal in the integrated military, but were eventually persuaded to do so. This was an important step in both groups’ equal access to peace.

The possibilities of post-conflict military integration

What these principles demonstrate is that there must be incentives for rank-and-file combatants to choose peace, either as civilians, or utilising their existing skills in a way that supports a transition to stability. Namely, through opposing forces’ integration into a post-conflict military. Uprisings, mutinies, and coups tend to come from a belief that those rebelling have been ‘forced’ down an unwanted path. Offering combatants the choice between demobilisation and integration promotes agency in a post-treaty environment.

Assuming all combatants wish to follow a ‘DDR’ route risks ignoring the complexities of the battlefield situation, individuals’ specific grievances, and post-conflict economic realities. DDR may continue to be relevant in some circumstances. But if we’re to see greater success in ‘sustaining peace’, our scholarship and practice should move beyond one-size-fits-all solutions.


War mentalities: disarming state soldiers’ hearts and minds in Post-Agreement Colombia

Dr Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala is a Research Associate and Head of Conflict and Conflict Management at The Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt. Her research explores the transformation of state forces after peace agreements. In this blog, she reflects on findings from Colombia: considering continuities in 'war mentalities' within the Colombian Army following the 2016 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.