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On 14 February, the Congolese prime minister suggested that that three remotely piloted vehicles ('drones' as they are more commonly called) would be deployed to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from June, for surveillance uses in the troubled eastern part of the country. The mission in Congo had been asking for such capability since 2008; the Security Council, however, only approved the request in January. Rwanda, China and Russia in particular tried to prevent their adoption, citing concern over where the intelligence would end up. The idea that the UN should not gather intelligence has long been an obstacle to some of its conflict-prevention activities, which rely on the consent of the host state government and the Security Council. But the head of UN peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous - keen on modernising and improving UN missions - emphasised the need for the ability to collect operational intelligence.
It is understandable why drones have something of a bad reputation. Their association with the CIA's covert targeted killing programme particular has led to concern that they are a weapon system out of control. But whatever the moral quandaries thrown up by kill lists and signature strikes, this reputation is undeserved, down more to their use in one programme than any inherent qualities. A world away from the Obama administration's own long war, drones could elsewhere serve a useful role in post-conflict peace.
The controversy on the use of drones by the UN mission in Congo was more telling of the interests of the objecting states than of the acceptability of unmanned systems (Rwanda is accused of backing the M23 rebel movement in Congo which has recently caused so much trouble). For drones offer a very useful basket of capabilities for all categories of UN mission, from observers to full-on peace enforcement, whether they are conducted by the UN or regional organisations such as the African Union.
Capability matters. Peace missions are hindered by the nature of the UN: with no standing forces, deployments rely on the personnel and equipment donor states assign to the task, which can vary wildly depending on whose interests are at stake.
These cobbled-together, normally multinational forces tend to have to work in underdeveloped parts of the world, often with rugged terrain, poor infrastructure, or both. Borders may be porous and fighters and smugglers slip between state lines with ease. Some deployments must also cover very large regions. The hybrid UN-AU mission in Darfur, for example, has fewer than 20,000 troops responsible for an area the size of Spain; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about 17,000 for a country the size of Western Europe and with a population of 67 million - under 300 troops per million. In conflict-afflicted states, roads and communications may be severely lacking. Aside from personnel, missions are often poorly equipped; the Darfur mission, for example, has had to plead for the desperately needed helicopters to allow operations in such a large area.
Depending on the particular mandate, a peace mission may be tasked with simple confidence-building measures - for instance, blue helmets placed along ceasefire lines between hostile factions and verifying compliance with a peace deal - all the way through to much more vigorous enforcement measures and protection of civilians, in which the use of force may be authorised and required.
Surveillance capability offered by drones is of great benefit to most UN deployments: peacekeepers need situational awareness too, especially where they might be targeted by opposing factions. The ability of unmanned systems to loiter over a large area and provide persistent monitoring, even of difficult terrain such as thick rainforests if the sensor suite is advanced enough, means that peacekeepers can more credibly monitor local hotspots before violence has broken out - or, if it has, verify what is going on and who is doing it without putting blue helmets in harm's way. This might serve to either deter spoilers (those who seek to undermine a peace deal), or at least improve the detection and collation of violent incidents.
For missions with stronger Chapter VII peace-enforcement mandates (where they may indeed be little peace to keep), the surveillance capability means that violations of the peace may be more easily monitored. Further, the persistent capability of drones means that careful targeting decisions can be made. UN missions must be impartial; bolstering their organic surveillance capability can reduce their reliance on potentially unreliable eye-witness reports and thinly spread patrols, providing a more-rounded basket of intelligence. The DRC mission is a good example, where spoilers and rebels can operate across vast expanses of rugged terrain with impunity.
Given the emphasis on the protection of civilians in many UN mandates since the Brahimi Report (a major 2000 report on peacekeeping reform), early-warning and compliance-monitoring capability would help the stretched resources of peacekeeping forces go much further. The peace deals UN forces have to help implement often have provisions for the disarmament and demobilisation of combatants. Factions sometimes hedge their bets on the outcome of a peace process by surreptitiously hiding stocks of weapons; while peacekeepers cannot be everywhere, drone surveillance - or the credible threat of it - might dissuade such illicit behaviour. And for missions in post-conflict scenarios where rearmament of combatants is a problem - witness the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon's struggle to keep Hizbullah from acquiring new weapons - drone surveillance capability could at least help with identifying such flows more visibly, permitting the Security Council to take action based on more than hearsay and hunch.
While much said about drones being a step-change in warfare is not borne out by the facts, drones do offer cost efficiency and the absence of operator risk.
Drones are much cheaper than traditional air power. Were future missions to adopt armed drones, for instance, real air effect could be delivered by even modestly resourced missions - something that now relies on the political will of a mission's backers who provide the equipment. Rich states might be more willing to assign unmanned capability than, say, expensive helicopters and jets. And, with the right mandate, they could be used without cumbersome approval by national capitals who may insist on control of manned air assets.
States committed to problematic interventions that require force, but who are still nervous about casualties, now have a new solution. African states keen on fostering regional security might also consider procuring off-the-shelf drone surveillance systems.
Of course, nothing here suggests remotely piloted vehicles are a panacea. Success in UN missions depends, always, on the political process. The aversion many states have to the UN possessing intelligence gathering capability is not likely to disappear either - particularly where regional players' interests are at stake. But anything that can help give peace missions the option of a bit more deterrent - particularly against violent spoilers - can surely be no bad thing if used wisely, whether it be surveillance capability or, perhaps in the future, something stronger.