Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration of Ex-Combatants

Massimo Fusato

July 2003

Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants is a first step in the transition from war to peace. Demilitarization can be used in times of peace as well, to reduce the size of armed forces and redistribute public spending. However, DDR is much more complicated in a post-conflict environment, when different fighting groups are divided by animosities and face a real security dilemma as they give up their weapons, when civil society structures have crumbled, and when the economy is stagnant. DDR supports the transition from war to peace by ensuring a safe environment, transferring ex-combatants back to civilian life, and enabling people to earn livelihoods through peaceful means instead of war.

The Goals 

Terrence Lyons talks about the tension between maintaining stability and addressing past injustice in post-conflict reconstruction. He also talks about ways to increase post-conflict stability through gradual democratization and the fostering of civil society.

The three phases of DDR are interconnected, and the successful completion of each phase is essential to the success of the others. The goals of DDR are both short term and long term:

  • Short-term goals: The immediate goal is the restoration of security and stability, through the disarmament of warring parties. Demobilization of armed groups is another fundamental step in the improvement of security conditions at the end of an armed conflict. Progressive disarmament reduces the mistrust that fuels a security dilemma between the fighting factions, allows aid workers to intervene more effectively, and allows peaceful social and economic activities to resume.
  • Long-term goals: The final goal of DDR is the sustained social and economic reintegration of ex-combatants into a peaceful society. However, DDR programs are not comprehensive development projects; they are temporary measures to facilitate the transition from war to peace. If a DDR program is to be sustainable and successful in the long term, it must be integrated with and supported by interventions for post-conflict reconstruction and social and economic development.

Necessary Preconditions

Demilitarization and demobilization involving large numbers of soldiers are complex processes that require great coordination among the different actors involved. The following five conditions are required before beginning a DDR program, and help to guarantee its success.

1. Security

A safe environment is required in order for parties to give up their weapons, and for DDR institutions to operate. Only trust can break the cycle of violence, allowing warring individuals and parties to disarm and resume civilian life. Third parties play an important role in guaranteeing compliance with a ceasefire, respect for public order, the safety of individuals, and equitable implementation of disarmament programs. Peacekeeping forces cannot be expected to end hostilities, but a credible deterring force is necessary to prevent unilateral violations of agreements, which could jeopardize an entire DDR program.

2. Inclusion of All Warring Parties

In order to establish a safe environment and break the security dilemma, it is necessary that all parties be included in the DDR program and disarm at the same time. Otherwise, it is easy for one party to resume fighting, taking advantage of its opponents' disarmament. It is important that all parties develop ownership of the process and do not feel discriminated against, that different parties feel that they are being treated equitably, and that they are given the same opportunities to reintegrate into society. Institutions implementing DDR should communicate regularly and frequently with each party at the political and military commander level. External observers and peacekeepers should be perceived by all sides to be impartial, neutral, and credible.

3. Political Agreement

The conditions of security and inclusion must be integrated into a political agreement defining the end of hostilities and the implementation of DDR. Experience has shown that DDR programs cannot drive a peace process. DDR can only be implemented in the context of a negotiated settlement, a ceasefire, or a peace agreement. It can reinforce the agreement, as a form of security guarantee and a confidence-building measure, but it cannot precede the agreement.

Shared political will, and a policy of amnesty and reconciliation, create the best conditions for successful implementation of a DDR program. Specific issues must be directly addressed by the peace process and integrated into the political agreement, including:

  • clear eligibility criteria for participation in the program;
  • creation of credible responsible institutions;
  • definition of realistic goals and a timetable for implementation.

Political agreements should take into account the practical realities of disarmament and demobilization, in order to set realistic goals that will support the sustainability of the peace accord.

4. Comprehensive approach

DDR programs cannot succeed without careful coordination of the phases of DDR by the different actors at the local and national levels. Disarmament without reintegration, and demobilization without previous disarmament and planned economic and social reintegration, are short-lived efforts. Necessary ingredients include:

  • a credible and authoritative national institution to plan, implement, and oversee the program at the national level;
  • peacekeeping forces and military personnel to implement disarmament;
  • civilian organizations and institutions to provide food, education, and health care to demobilized ex-combatants;
  • local communities which are sensitized and directly involved in the social and economic integration of demobilized ex-combatants.

5. Sufficient funds

DDR programs must have sufficient funding to complete their implementation, and to provide for contingencies in a flexible way. Failure to complete a DDR program can jeopardize the entire peace process and obstruct economic recovery. Ex-combatants who are not successfully demobilized and reintegrated can easily fuel new violence, and may return to conflict as the only possible way to make a living. A new escalation in violence can then destroy the results of piecemeal interventions and partial implementation of DDR.


Successful DDR programs recognize that not all ex-combatants have the same needs. Effective programs are those which:

  • are flexible, and adapt interventions to the specific needs of different target groups;
  • balance ex-combatants' needs with those of the larger community;
  • target resettlement communities, because assistance to soldiers who have committed atrocities can be perceived as unfair and can cause resentment.

Effective DDR programs also provide specific programs for the most vulnerable groups of ex-combatants. The disabled are one such group; child soldiers and women are another.

Child Soldiers

Children, especially in poor countries, may be enrolled in armed groups involved in internal conflict. However, child soldiers are often neglected and are not able to benefit from DDR programs that do not take their special vulnerability into account. Child soldiers, having grown up within an armed group and having been exposed to atrocities since a very young age, are often the most difficult ex-combatants to reintegrate into society. Lessons learned from past DDR experiences suggest that child soldiers are best served when they are:

  • separated from other ex-combatants, so that their special needs can be addressed and so they can avoid abuse by military authorities, who may force them to enroll in new military forces;
  • quickly discharged and reinserted into society;
  • placed in long-term reintegration programs that give priority to family reunification;
  • provided with long-term psychological support, to help them recover from the negative experience of war and to limit asocial attitudes and aggressive behaviors;
  • provided with education and professional training, which offer children with no professional experience an opportunity for a sustainable livelihood.


Women often have inadequate access to DDR benefits. Female combatants, abducted girls, and families of combatants often are not reached by DDR programs. Female combatants can be discriminated against by their male colleagues, especially when they do not have official rank and have to rely on men to confirm their grade and status. Many of the women associated with fighting groups have been abducted for sexual services, and do not benefit from DDR if they do not qualify as ex-combatants and do not want to resettle with their "partners." Finally, the families of combatants are often directly involved in the conflict, providing logistical support to combatants or living in barracks with the armed groups. However, when the conflict is over, only the ex-combatants receive the benefits of DDR programs, which they might not share with their families.

Demobilization programs should account for women's needs as follows:

  • female staff and gender specialists should be recruited;
  • encampment facilities should be adapted to accommodate women and girls;
  • medical care should include attention to female health care needs;
  • young girls should receive special psychological support;
  • resettlement logistics plans should take into account ex-combatants' families;
  • abducted girls should be allowed to register separately from their "partners."

Reintegration programs should account for discrimination against women in education and employment. Special attention should be given to the social reintegration of women who have experienced sexual abuse, who have rejected the patriarchal structure of their communities of origin, or who are isolated because they have been rejected by their families and/or their communities of settlement.


It is useful to distinguish between three phases of DDR, each with different goals and involving different actors. However, these phases should not be considered isolated or ordered in a chronological sequence. More realistically, different parts of a DDR Program overlap and are implemented in parallel, in different locations, and targeting different groups.


Disarmament is the first phase of DDR, and logically precedes demobilization and reintegration. However, it is often a long-term process. A major problem is the collection of small weapons and light arms, which are easy to conceal and difficult to account for. The existence of large paramilitary groups and irregular forces also complicates disarmament which, under these conditions, becomes a long-term process to be carried out over a wide region, by peacekeepers, regular military forces, and civilian police. The creation of effective police forces becomes a high priority, both for their ability to control the territory more effectively than peacekeepers, and for the indirect effects of improved security. A safe environment greatly enhances the effectiveness of voluntary disarmament programs, by decreasing the need for civilians to retain their weapons.

Arms collection centers need security guarantees, both for center personnel and for ex-combatants. Collection and destruction of weapons should be completed quickly, to avoid having arms stolen from storage centers and used to restart fighting.

Disarmament criteria may focus on specific weapons, individuals, or groups, although:

  • an exclusive focus on weapons may attract individuals who seek the benefits connected to the disarmament program, but who are not ex-combatants willing to demobilize;
  • focusing on individual disarmament is considered an aggressive attitude by military leaders, who may decide not to cooperate if they believe that they have lost control over the process;
  • a combined approach requires both surrender of weapons and individual verification of combatant status. This approach reduces abuse, and shifts the program entry criterion toward eligibility as a combatant.

Identifying a specific group for disarmament has proven to be the most effective strategy in ensuring the cooperation of commanders, although it has some undesirable consequences: strengthening the commanders' control over the combatants, and enabling abuses by commanders who "sell" access to the DDR program.

Disarmament is important not only for the material improvement of security conditions, but also for its psychological impact. There are added psychological benefits when ex-combatants physically disable their own weapons, and are led in doing so by their commanders, immediately upon entering the disarmament site. The process symbolically underscores the transition from military to civilian life. Additionally, public destruction of weapons is an important tool in sensitizing the population and promoting the DDR program.


Demobilization includes the dismantling of military units and the transition of ex-combatants from military to civilian life. In times of peace, demobilization programs can be gradual and tuned to the needs of the groups being demobilized. At the end of a conflict, demobilization presents the same logistical challenges as do programs of emergency relief and resettlement of displaced people.

Demobilization includes assembly of ex-combatants, orientation programs, and transportation to the communities of destination. These movements of large groups of people should be timed to coincide with phases of civilian life that facilitate reintegration, such as crop and school cycles.

  • Assembly of ex-combatants helps ensure their participation in the DDR program, through their disarmament, registration, and access to DDR benefits in the form of goods and services. When ex-combatants are assembled, they are first registered and then receive civilian identification cards, which allow the holders to participate in the DDR program and receive benefits. Encampments are not intended to host ex-combatants for a long time, but adequate facilities, food supplies, and medical assistance are important to maintain discipline and security. In addition, encampments' infrastructure should be built to meet not only the needs of ex-combatants, but also of the many dependents who may follow them.
  • Orientation is essential in establishing and reinforcing ex-combatants' beliefs that the DDR program offers viable alternatives to conflict as a livelihood:
    • Pre-discharge orientation has important practical and psychological functions. Practically, it provides ex-combatants and their dependents with basic information about the DDR program. Psychologically, it empowers DDR beneficiaries as free citizens, by addressing their needs and doubts and asking for their interactive participation. The pre-discharge orientation typically focuses on the DDR program, the implementing agencies, the rights and obligations of participants, and how they can access the program's benefits. General information is also offered about reintegration into civilian life, such as health issues, education and employment opportunities, and access to land and credit.
    • Post-discharge orientation caters to more specific needs, in the context of the community of resettlement. Post-discharge orientation is the first step in the social and economic reintegration of ex-combatants. It provides information about the place of relocation, economic opportunities, and relevant local institutions and social networks, including religious groups, NGOs, veterans' associations, farmers' associations, women's groups, and others.
  • Transportation is a primary logistical challenge. Ex-combatants, their families, and their belongings are transported to the district of destination. If organized convoys cannot reach the communities of origin or destinations of choice, ex-combatants are provided with travel allowances, which ensure that they can finance their way home independently.


After ex-combatants have been demobilized, their effective and sustainable reintegration into civilian life is necessary to prevent a new escalation of the conflict. In the short term, ex-combatants who do not find peaceful ways of making a living are likely to return to conflict. In the longer term, disaffected veterans can play an important role in destabilizing the social order and polarizing the political debate, becoming easy targets of populist, reactionary, and extremist movements.

Reintegration includes:

  • Reinsertion, which addresses the most immediate needs of ex-combatants. Reinsertion assistance consists of short-term relief interventions, which provide a safety net for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance may include housing, medical care, food, and elementary education for children. The distribution of cash allowances has proven to be the most effective and efficient way to provide reinsertion assistance. Cash payments are preferred over in-kind assistance because of reduced transaction costs, easier and more transparent accounting, and because cash payments can adapt more closely to the specific needs of beneficiaries. Additionally, cash allowances have the positive psychological effect of empowering ex-combatants to take charge of their lives.
  • However, cash payments present two dilemmas: they can give the negative impression of being "cash for weapons," and they can be easily lost or misused for consumption and pleasure. A common solution to this problem is to distribute allowances neither in advance, nor at the time of disarmament, but instead after arrival at the community of destination, in separate installments, and accompanied by post-discharge counseling. Initiatives aimed at full and self-sustained social and economic reintegration, which must follow temporary reinsertion assistance programs. Ex-combatants are a special group who present additional challenges, since:
    • they constitute a potential security threat;
    • they may be viewed with fear, suspicion, and resentment by the rest of the population;
    • they are often uprooted from their communities of origin and their social networks;
    • they may not know or may no longer accept basic social rules.
  • For these reasons, the first step in reintegration of ex-combatants is their inclusion in society. DDR programs provide cooperation with formal and informal local social networks, psychological support and counseling, and initiatives for the reunification of families.
  • Economic integration, which is the final requirement for a DDR program to be successful and sustainable in the long term. The goal of economic reintegration efforts is to provide ex-combatants with financial independence through employment. Different initiatives should cater to the special needs of disabled veterans who cannot reintegrate into the labor force, for rural settlers, and for urban settlers. Common economic integration programs include education and professional training, public employment, encouragement of private initiative through skills development and microcredit support, and access to land.

Use the following to cite this article:
Fusato, Massimo. "Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration of Ex-Combatants." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/demobilization>.

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