Are UN drones the future of peacekeeping?

A UN drone recharges at the MONUSCO base in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
A UN drone recharges at the MONUSCO base in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo AFP

A United Nations panel on technological development has called for peacekeeping missions to be equipped with unmanned drones to survey conflict zones. A purportedly crucial tool steeped in controversy, UAVs are set to become a peacekeeping staple.


UN correspondent

Amid vast technological advances in warfare, the UN remains “well behind the curve”, the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping warned in a report published February, signalling a dangerous disadvantage for blue helmets working in volatile regions.

“The argument we’re making is that peacekeeping missions on the ground should have at least the same operational capability that every government has within its police and military forces,” Jane Holl Lute, who led the panel, told FRANCE 24.

“The capacity of aerial visualisation is coming to everyone, in every setting – agriculture, disaster response, conflict – and we say that the member states need to take a look at empowering peacekeeping missions more broadly as part of an overall orientation towards technology to strengthen their hand.”

Eager to avoid the term “drone” because of its connotations with widely unpopular US military strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the UN describes its unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as “flying cameras” and stresses their strict surveillance-only purpose.

In December 2013, the first UN drones began scanning the eastern Great Lakes region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, where one of the world’s deadliest conflicts has seen militias, warlords and government forces battling over the mineral-rich district for more than 20 years.

The deployment of UAVs came amid a controversial transformation of the DRC mission, which became the UN’s first ever “force intervention brigade” after the UN Security Council voted to revoke its policy of firing only in self-defence.

After helping to vanquish the Tutsi-dominated M23 rebels in 2013, the UAVs were deployed to begin tracking other armed groups in the region, notably the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, a group led by Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after helping to stage the 1994 genocide there. Today, they continue to propagate genocide ideology and are blamed for the massacre and rape of thousands of civilians in the dense jungle of North and South Kivu.

‘Like supermarket surveillance’

On their launch, the UAVs were touted as a fast and effective method of finding and surveying the militants, without putting troops at risk. “Getting to the FDLR in the jungle is not only dangerous but it could take months and thousands of troops,” one UN official, who asked not to be identified, told FRANCE 24. “With drones we can watch their movements 24 hours a day.”

The official said that the UN uses the UAVs like “CCTV in a supermarket” – not only for surveillance, but also as a deterrent. While the drones can fly up to 5 kilometres above land (where they would be imperceptible), operators in DRC were instructed to have them hover in plain view above militant camps as a reminder that they were being watched. “Without touching anything, going anywhere near them, we’re sending a clear message: we know where you are, surrender,” the official said.

A member of the FDLR walks through dense forest in North Kivu in February 2009. Photo © Lionel Healing, AFP.
A member of the FDLR walks through dense forest in North Kivu in February 2009. Photo © Lionel Healing, AFP.

The strategy has carried some success, albeit hard to gauge – 186 “low-ranking fighters” in North and South Kivu surrendered to the UN ahead of a January 2015 deadline. The UN mission in Congo, MONUSCO, believes that number could represent around 15 to 25 percent of the group. “We don’t really know because we don’t know exactly how big the FDLR is,” a MONUSCO official admitted, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Unlike the M23 they are not a formed military unit: most of the time they don’t operate with uniforms; they very much mix in a civilian setting; they live with their extended families... It would be extremely hard for us to pick out the fighters from the non-fighters.”

Interpreting drone data in war zones has a long way to go, and many of the UN contractors who record and analyse the images in DRC are Europeans who learnt their craft in the dust-mired contours of Iraq and Afghanistan, far from the dense jungle backdrop of eastern Congo.

Already, their skills are both impressive and unsettling. An official who has worked with contractors in DRC said that they are able to identity a vehicle, and sometimes even how many people it was carrying, just from its tyre tread in the mud. At 4.5 kilometres, an analyst can read a license plate, and with a thermal camera, interpreters say they can identify where a bullet was fired from.

In DRC, the UAVs have provided unexpected finds. A maritime radar used by a drone on the border with Rwanda revealed that smugglers were shipping gold out of the country by boat at night. “Before, we had no idea this was going on,” said the source, adding that the illegal operation has since been shut down. In May 2014, more than a dozen people were rescued by MONUSCO when a UAV spotted their capsized boat on Lake Kivu.

And while the analysts have been unable so far to work out exactly which of the FDLR community are combatants, the data has provided them with a vivid and insightful picture of daily life within the camps, revealing relationships, societal structure and wealth. “You can even track the score of a kids' football match in the street," the source said.

‘Nothing has changed’ on the ground

These anecdotes, especially when considering the cost of the five drones deployed in DRC -- $15 million, or one percent of the MONUSCO budget -- serve to advocate the use of this remarkable new technology.

And yet, some of those vulnerable to the attacks the drones are supposed to have curbed say that the deployment of UAVs has made “no discernable difference” to their daily lives.

“At first they reassured us and we thought their presence would have a positive impact on security in the region,” FRANCE 24 Observer Albert Gomabishi (who uses a pseudonym), said via email from his village in North Kivu.

“Alas, nothing has changed. People have become wary of the drones and have started to trust the FARDC [Congolese army] more than MONUSCO. Perhaps it’s down to a lack of communication that we don’t understand their importance, but from where we stand, in terms of our daily lives… Well, we continue to count our dead.”

One of few drone-obtained images released by the UN shows a village in eastern Congo in December 2013, shortly after the UN's first drones were deployed in the region.
One of few drone-obtained images released by the UN shows a village in eastern Congo in December 2013, shortly after the UN's first drones were deployed in the region.

Other Observers in the region agreed that the drones were “futile” and “a waste of resources,” although some said that they still felt reassured by their presence.

That crucial tipping point between a sense of reassurance and intrusion has been underlined by NGOs who say that if aerial imagery is used for both humanitarian and military operations, which has been the case in DRC and would likely play out elsewhere, “the lines are blurred between help and harm”.

A statement issued in July 2014 by international NGOs including Concern, Care, Handicap International and Finn Church Aid said: “If data gathered during a flight with a humanitarian objective informs combat operations or is used for military intelligence, there is a clear compromise of neutrality.” 

Humanitarian opposition

Technologist Patrick Meier, who founded the world’s first “humanitarian drone network”, UAViators, says that the UN needs to start drafting guidelines and initial best practices “or else other less qualified individuals will be creating [them]”.

“The reason NGOs are concerned about this is because of impartiality and neutrality issues as a humanitarian principle,” he told FRANCE 24. “If all of a sudden the perception on the ground is that the [NGOs] are basically getting intelligence info from UN Peacekeeping, then their concern is that they will no longer get access to the places they need to get access to on the ground because of the local perception that ‘you’re spying on us, you’re with the military’.”

Meier, who is director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation's Computing Research Institute, joined other aerial data experts at the UN in November to consult on the issue.

“There was broad consensus that the humanitarian UAV space needs a solid policy or code of conduct soon,” a report from the meeting co-authored by Meier reads. “A few negative incidents could result in a longer-term stigma against UAVs, particularly in countries sensitive about sovereignty.”

Currently, the UN requires consent from the member state under surveillance but does not share data obtained with the member state. “The UN needs to ensure that this kind of data does not fall into the wrong hands, and that could potentially be, depending on the situation, the government,” said Meier.

Jane Holl Lute said that regulations concerning the dissemination, distribution and sharing of data; data integrity and data privacy “all have to be worked out”. She said the intelligence gathered belongs to the UN, and “should be treated as other UN information, but the policies and procedures need to be developed for this purpose”.

February’s report recommends expanding the use of UAVs to almost all UN peacekeeping missions. The DPKO, or UN peacekeeping department, is currently in the procurement stage of bringing drones to the UN's mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

“We make a very strong recommendation that drones, or the capacity for aerial visualisation, is a capacity every mission should have with very few exceptions,” the report reads.

Martin Kobler, who has led MONUSCO both with and without the use of drones, told FRANCE 24 that intelligence gathered by UAVs was a crucial tool in improving peacekeeping efforts and ensuring the safety of blue helmets.

“Drones are a very important asset,” he said. “Everyone wants drones.”

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