Drones for peace?

The idea of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones for monitoring peace agreements and ceasefires is not new.  Indeed, back in 2006, the only direct death caused by the drone itself, rather than the weapons it was carrying, was deployed by the Belgian attachment to the European peacekeeping force (EUFOR) in Congo.

Most recently, the Ivory Coast has requested that the United Nations utilise drones in response to the reduction of peacekeepers on the ground, due to be cut by one battalion by the summer of 2013.  This follows on from a request, in January 2013 by the UN to use them for similar surveillance purposes in Congo.  A proposal opposed by Rwanda, upon whose border with Congo this drone use would focus.

As with most things, the use of surveillance UAVs is a far more economically viable alternative to ‘boots on the ground’.  For the UN, plagued by a need to cut costs while facing an increase in the number of places its peace-keeping endeavours are required, the use of this technology makes sense.  For example, drones can stay airborne for extended periods of time and thus has an increased capacity for data collection.  However, the use of drones in this context may need to be accompanied by some public education.  A previous drone used in Congo by the Belgians was shot down during landing.

Assurances will also need to be made that the UN has no plans to arm these drones (unlikely considering that they are the UN, but an easy target for conspiracy theorists opposed to the maintenance of the UN’s presence in Ivory Coast).  There are also serious questions about the use and storage of the images captured and how these data will be disseminated.  Is it appropriate for the UN to become an intelligence gathering body? What happens to that information? And what protections will be put in place to ensure that information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.  Finally, how does technology deployed in this context interact with the right to privacy, the focus of so much debate on drone use in the UK?

The UN is not alone in wanting surveillance drones.  Frontex, the European agency charged with the management of operational cooperation of the EU’s external borders, has very much engaged with the use of unmanned aerial systems as a tool for their work.  A recent article quoted Frontex’ Executive Director as saying “There are many legal questions to be solved. But technologically speaking, it [UAVs] seems to be a reliable and cost-effective means for surveillance”.  This resonates with broader European engagement on drones.  Since 2009, the European Commission has been exploring both uses for this technology and the role for European manufacturers to play in its development. Its final report into this issue included the recognition that

All actions related to the development of the RPAS must respect the rights and principles enshrined in the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the EU, and in particular the right to  private life and family life (Article 7) and the protection of personal data (Article 8).

There would be merit in the UN recognising the need to protect rights around privacy, and to put in place safeguards for the protection of personal data.  There would also be benefit in clarifying the process on what action is taken should images appear to indicate that a peace agreement/border/ceasefire is being breached?  What happens if these images are ignored? Will the excuse of ‘too much data’ have any validity? Will there be UN staff always monitoring the streams of data from the drones?

As with the use of UAVs for surveillance purposes by the Ministry of Defence in Afghanistan and their aim of reducing risk to British soldiers; the use of drones by the UN could make a positive contribution to the risks faced by UN peacekeepers.  As the ambush and murder of five Indian nationals, serving in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan on 10 April 2013, shows, peacekeeping can be a hazardous undertaking.

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