Blue helmet drones? UN prepares to send drones over Africa.

High-tech, unarmed drones in Central and West African states can track guerrillas and swing the intelligence battle; UN chief Ban Ki-moon favors the idea.

Blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers deployed in African countries may soon have a new tool in their arsenal: the surveillance drone.

Drones are heading to eastern Congo as part of an intervention force to root out the rebel groups that have destabilized the region for years. Meanwhile, the UN is mulling the idea of unarmed drones sent to Ivory Coast as the country recovers from nearly a decade of civil unrest. 

Experts say unarmed drones could give often-beleaguered peacekeepers an edge in missions where they can be outfoxed by guerrillas, who often have greater numbers and more local knowledge than UN forces possess.  

“It’s an essential tool that’s ideal for many missions,” says Walter Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and a former consultant to the UN.

Already officials are looking at whether drones may be useful for peacekeeping in South Sudan, he says. “It can also be very valuable if you’re sending out a patrol to have a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] in advance so you can tell the conditions of the road, if bridges are washed out, or even if there are ambushes on the road.”

In Ivory Coast, militants loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo are using the dense forest along the country’s border with Liberia to hide out and stage attacks. Peacekeepers often show up at the sites of these attacks too late, or are victims themselves. Seven blue helmets from Niger were killed last June in an attack blamed on the militants.

In a report sent in March to the Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed sending drones to Ivory Coast even as he planned to pull out several hundred blue helmets.

The secretary-general also proposed the deployment of drones during the planning stages of the Congo intervention force.

The force’s conception came after the M23 rebel movement’s takeover of the provincial capital, Goma. Peacekeepers initially fought back against the rebels but later retreated.

“In the DRC [Congo], the UN has been condemned on numerous occasions for not knowing when rebels were attacking civilians (even, sometimes, a few kilometers from UN camps),” writes Lise Morje Howard, an expert on peacekeeping at Georgetown University, in an e-mail.

“In the regional neighborhoods of the DRC and Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], war spreads across borders like a disease. The ability to monitor borders and conflict areas from the air could very well help stem the spread of war,” she added. 

The UN has lacked a reliable surveillance strategy since the days of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, Dr. Howard says. The general in charge of UN troops during the genocide lamented that he had no idea what was going on in much of the country during the slaughter.

Drones could help solve that.

“They can just stay in the air for a long time. They can cover a lot of distance, and remain on station possibly tens of hours,” says Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “In the UN context, I would imagine those being a particular attraction.”

But drones can’t replace boots on the ground when it comes to peacekeeping, experts caution, particularly in places like Ivory Coast.

“The downsizing of the UN in Cote d’Ivoire is too soon,” says Alex Vines of the Africa program at London’s Chatham House think tank. With Mr. Gbagbo about to face trial at the International Criminal Court, and the country scheduling elections for 2015, the possibility for unrest remains acute, Mr. Vines says.

Drones raise new questions for peacekeepers. The UN must decide how to classify and transmit the terabytes of video data a drone collects, says Dr. Dorn, and it must decide how not to invade people's privacy during surveillance.

Then there’s how to deal with border states. A drone’s camera can peer up to 30 miles across a border, and can spot rebel camps as well as the kind of activity used to defy international sanctions. That can be trouble for maintaining cordial relations with others.

Already, diplomats from several African and European countries, as well as Security Council members Russia and China, have expressed reservations about the UN’s plans to deploy drones to Congo, but Rwanda, a regional force accused of supporting the M23 rebels, eventually did support the drone-craft deployment.

“[There is] hesitancy among some member states to give the UN what they feel would be an intelligence capability,” Dorn says. “Once the UN is taking images, the member states would be concerned that they might end up in other people's hands, or they may take pictures of things ... outside the mandate.”

Nonetheless, the drones are on their way. Dorn says.   The UN hopes to deploy them in Congo by the end of the summer.

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