UNITED, NATIONS – The United Nations, looking to modernize its peacekeeping operations, is planning for the first time to deploy a fleet of its own surveillance drones in missions in Central and West Africa.
The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping has notified Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that it intends to deploy a unit of at least three unarmed surveillance drones in the eastern region of Congo.
The action is the first step in a broader bid to integrate unmanned aerial surveillance systems, which have become a standard feature of Western military operations, into the United Nations’ far-flung peacekeeping empire.
The United States backs the plan as a way to help the U.N. mission protect civilians, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday.
However, the effort is encountering resistance from governments, particularly those from the developing world, that fear the drones will open up a new intelligence-gathering front dominated by Western powers and potentially supplant the legions of African and Asian peacekeepers who now act as the United Nations’ eyes and ears on the ground.
“Africa must not become a laboratory for intelligence devices from overseas,” said Olivier Nduhungirehe, a Rwandan diplomat at the U.N. “We don’t know whether these drones are going to be used to gather intelligence from Kigali, Kampala, Bujumbura or the entire region.”
Developing countries fear Western control over intelligence gathered by the drones. Some of those concerns are rooted in the 1990s, when the United States and other major powers infiltrated the U.N. weapons inspection agency to surreptitiously collect intelligence on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s military.
The growing American use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere to identify and kill suspected terrorists has only heightened anxieties about their deployment as part of multilateral peacekeeping missions.
U.N. officials have sought to allay the suspicions, saying there is no intention to arm the drones or to spy on countries that have not consented to their use.
The U.N. drones would have a range of about 240 km and can hover for up to 12 hours at a time. They would be equipped with infrared technology that can detect troops hidden beneath forest canopy or operating at night, allowing them to track movements of armed militias, assist patrols heading into hostile territory and document atrocities.
“These are really just flying cameras,” said one U.N. official. “Our best method of protection is early warning. We recently had a patrol ambushed in Darfur. If you had a drone ahead of the patrol, it could have seen the ambush party.”
“If you know armed groups are moving in attack or battle formation early enough, you can warn civilians,” the official added.
The U.N., which manages a force of more than 100,000 in blue helmets deployed among 15 peacekeeping missions, views drones as a low-cost alternative to expensive helicopters for surveillance operations.
Along with the pending deployments in the Congo, the organization has ordered a feasibility study into their use in Cote d’Ivoire. U.N. military planners say they see a need for drones in many other missions, including Darfur, Sudan and South Sudan, where the U.N. monitors tensions along the border of the two countries. But they acknowledged that they have little hope that Sudan will permit them.
The U.N. has previously turned to the U.S. and other governments to provide overflight imagery. Rolf Ekeus, the former Swedish chief of the U.N. Special Commission in Iraq, persuaded the U.S. to loan the U.N. U-2 spy planes to monitor Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program in the 1990s.
Interest in drone technology has picked up among U.N. humanitarian and relief agencies. Last February, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research deployed the first U.N. drone in Port-au-Prince to survey earthquake damage and help coordinate recovery efforts.
The use of drones in peacekeeping missions has proved more sensitive. Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, Masood Khan, recently said member states understand the importance of surveillance in ensuring the safety of peacekeepers. But he said there are differing views over the appropriateness of deploying drones.
Others say the dispute centers on questions about who would have access to the images and intelligence collected by the drones and whether the next step would be arming them.
To address such questions, the U.N. special committee on peacekeeping operations, which is made up of more than 140 countries, has asked the secretary general to assess the effect of drones and other modern technology on peace missions.
Herve Ladsous, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping, asked the Security Council in a closed-door meeting Tuesday to support his plan for drones in Congo. Britain, France and other Western members of the council joined the U.S. in backing the proposal. But China, Russia, Rwanda, Pakistan and Guatemala voiced concern, setting the stage for a contentious debate over the U.N. plan. Rwanda’s U.N. ambassador, Eugene-Richard Gasana, said the U.N.’s introduction of drones carries the risk of transforming the peacekeeping mission into a belligerent force, according to a council diplomat.
But Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said much of the resistance is driven by fear that drones will replace the legions of U.N. peacekeepers.
“This really boils down to a concern from the troop contributors that they are going to be sidelined. A drone is a cheaper and more efficient alternative to an infantry patrol,” said Gowan. “I think, very frankly, that a number of the large African and Asian troops contributors are worried that if the United Nations gets involved in high-tech operations like this, that their personnel will be made redundant.”