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International Conference on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration challenges Africa, United Nations to do more to advance reintegration

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(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

KINSHASA, 14 June - Returning former combatants to civilian life was one of the most complex and important elements for consolidating peace in African countries just emerging from war, and required greater commitment and collaboration by African stakeholders and their international partners, participants declared upon the conclusion of the Second International Conference on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Stability in Africa, held in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which co-organized the three-day Conference with the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, is itself coming out of years of devastating warfare, dramatically illustrating both the challenges and opportunities confronting programmes for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) across the continent.

The Conference, declared Congolese President Joseph Kabila in a message to the opening session on 12 June, was convened "at a time when the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the victim of bloody and unnecessary conflicts, is tackling a new phase of its young existence: the rule of law and democratic consolidation".

Although more than 100,000 former fighters have already been disarmed and demobilized in that country, the process remained incomplete, noted his message, which was presented by Minister for Foreign Affairs Mbusa Nyamwisi. President Kabila thus welcomed the Conference's goal of sharing experiences and lessons from throughout Africa, so as to "improve the effectiveness and efficiency of DDR programmes in our countries and create the conditions for sustainable peace and the socio-economic development of our peoples".

Africans must be at the forefront of disarmament and reintegration efforts in their continent, the Conference agreed. A hallmark and central goal of the International Conference, therefore, was to provide an occasion for "African ways and African voices" to be better incorporated, observed William Lacy Swing, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. Swing, who co-chaired the event, stressed that the Conference would help build the capacity of African DDR experts and partners, following on the first such conference held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in June 2005. United Nations support for African efforts to improve DDR operations was part of a broader commitment to peace and prosperity in Africa, Mr. Swing said, referring to remarks by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in January, on his first official trip as head of the world body.

Not only must African countries take charge of African DDR programmes, "they must be the soul of this process", said Belgian Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Johan Swinnen. The role of the international community, he added, was to provide financial and technical support to those efforts. The Conference itself was made possible through generous support from Belgium and Sweden. The successful reintegration of former combatants was especially important for Africa, Ambassador Swinnen said, since failed DDR programmes had contributed to some countries relapsing into conflict and instability.

The Conference brought together African DDR practitioners and stakeholders to share experiences and ideas about ways to improve the design, operation and implementation of DDR programmes, and to discuss ways to better link them with other aspects of post-war recovery, rehabilitation and development. The nearly 200 participants came from more than 20 African nations, as well as from a number of donor countries, international and regional organizations and non-governmental groups. The African participants included government officials, current and former members of national DDR commissions and peacekeeping missions, beneficiaries of DDR programmes, members of armed forces and representatives of women's associations, civil society groups and communities hosting ex-combatants.

Five of the African countries - Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda - presented detailed accounts of their DDR experiences, highlighting both strengths and shortcomings and underlining lessons for the future. Many other African delegates also shared aspects of their particular cases. The exchanges helped bring out the wide diversity of DDR efforts in Africa, reflecting the differing dynamics of their conflicts, the nature of the peace processes, whether DDR has been implemented mainly by Governments or in cooperation with United Nations peacekeeping missions, and numerous other factors.

Although the United Nations had launched its Integrated DDR Standards in December 2006 in an effort to better systematize such operations around the world, the Organization acknowledged that each country faced unique circumstances: DDR programmes should not follow some rigid model, but must be tailored to local conditions and needs.

Despite the differences in national experiences, virtually all participants agreed that the greatest challenges for success revolved around the final "R" - reintegration. By their nature, DDR programmes generally focused on ex-combatants' disarmament and demobilization and provided some short-term assistance - cash payments, skills training and other packages - to give them a small start towards resuming civilian life. Sustainable reintegration, however, required much more, including support for community recovery initiatives and better prepared local populations to accept returning fighters.

Reviving national economies and creating jobs had been the focus of a plenary session on "Public and Private Partnership in Reintegration Processes", which highlighted ways in which national businesses, both large and small, could be better enlisted in activities that provided employment for former combatants and other citizens, thereby contributing to the consolidation of peace.

In addition, the conference participants concentrated their discussion on several "critical issues" confronting DDR programmes in Africa, with the aim of developing recommendations to address some of those operations' common shortcomings and limitations. Four main thematic topics were highlighted and taken up by working groups: children and women associated with fighting forces; combatants operating on foreign soil; DDR and security sector reform; and transitional justice.

Peace missions in Africa often had to address the problems and needs of female ex-combatants, child soldiers and other children closely associated with the conflict, participants heard. Some DDR programmes had rapidly demobilized child soldiers, but girls with armed militias were often excluded or neglected. Even where children were brought into the DDR programmes, they were often treated without full regard for their particular needs, and broader security concerns usually took precedence over child protection responses.

Similarly, while there was growing recognition of the need to better tailor disarmament, demobilization and reintegration operations to the specific interests and needs of women ex-combatants and other women associated with armed groups, implementation had been very uneven. There was not yet a common understanding of how best to meet the needs of children, including child soldiers, or of adult women in DDR programmes.

Combatants who operated outside of their own countries were a major challenge to peace and security in Africa, particularly in post-conflict environments, participants were told. Such "combatants on foreign soil" had been involved in numerous conflicts, especially in the Great Lakes region - where combatants from the Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi had operated in neighbouring countries - as well as in West Africa. Since DDR programmes were generally national in scope, such foreign combatants sometimes had been able to exploit weak border controls to evade disarmament operations or "shop around" for the most attractive reintegration benefits.

Mr. Swing noted the particularly destabilizing problem of such foreign combatants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some 15,000 had been repatriated to their home countries, with the support of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC); but 7,000 to 8,000 still remained on Congolese territory. Only closer cooperation among neighbouring countries and the involvement of African regional organizations could help overcome some of those problems, the Conference concluded. The value of regional coordination was also highlighted by the experience of the Multi-country Demobilization and Reintegration Programme (MDRP), a donor group led by the World Bank, which seeks to aid some 450,000 ex-combatants in seven countries of Central Africa and the Great Lakes.

In practice, consideration of reform of the security sector, especially the national army and police, was often delayed until after DDR programmes have been completed, participants heard. However, developing links between DDR and security sector reform could be mutually beneficial. Many ex-combatants returned to civilian life, yet some also sought careers in the regular security forces. That path could be made more effective by incorporating longer-term security considerations in the planning and implementation of demobilization and reintegration operations. The challenge was to ensure that only suitable candidates were brought into the ranks of the military and police, while at the same time professionalizing and depoliticizing the security structure so that it operated under government oversight, was able to defend the country's territory from external threat, punished human rights abuses from within its ranks and ensured citizens' security.

In a similar fashion, it was pointed out, DDR programmes and mechanisms to achieve justice in the transitional period after war tended to be developed and implemented in relative isolation from each other. That not only missed opportunities for coordination, but also hampered the ability to implement DDR and successfully achieve long-term reintegration and reconciliation. For example, early and uncoordinated efforts to prosecute military commanders for war crimes might sometimes impede the willingness of combatants to join a DDR process. DDR programmes also often sought to reintegrate former combatants into communities that were victimized by those combatants during the conflict. The acceptance of ex-combatants into those communities often required a transitional justice process that fostered reconciliation and enabled everyone to move beyond the trauma of the past.

In addition to many specific and detailed recommendations that emerged from working group sessions, the participants agreed on a number of broad recommendations. Those included:

- The national ownership of DDR programmes should be enhanced by supporting the efforts of all national stakeholders (Governments, civil societies, warring factions and others), including through technical assistance and capacity-building support. The international community should support and work in genuine partnership with national DDR stakeholders;

- Africa's international partners should ensure that community rehabilitation, poverty reduction and other broader development priorities were taken up in a timely fashion through appropriate channels, to make sure that society as a whole benefited and that ex-combatants were successfully reintegrated, with no relapse into armed conflict;

- Every effort should be made to include regional perspectives in the design and implementation of DDR programmes, with particular attention to cross-border linkages, such as disarming and repatriating combatants on foreign soil and combating illicit flows of small arms;

- The special needs of children, women, the disabled and other groups associated with warring factions should be adequately included in the planning and implementation stages of any DDR effort, with follow-up to ensure that their rights were safeguarded and that they were effectively reintegrated into society;

- Material assistance to ex-combatants should be adequate and well designed. However, care should be taken that such support does not convey an impression that former fighters were being rewarded for their past violent behaviour. Towards that end, DDR programmes should take greater account of community interests and concerns, promote wider development and create a more welcoming environment for returning fighters.

For information media - not an official record