Technology & Trade
Commentary

Equipping a UN peacekeeping force for the future

in Program

By Jessica Sun: 

From UAVs to advanced mapping technology, the United Nations is turning to 21st century tools to meet modern peacekeeping challenges. According to Hervé Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, the UN “cannot continue just using tools of 50 or 100 years ago.” As such, the UN has announced a comprehensive review to update and improve its peacekeeping forces—creating a ‘force for the future.’ Adopting these new technologies is not without its challenges as many UN member states fear that these tools could compromise state sovereignty as well as the fundamental principles of peacekeeping. While the process of integrating new technologies will be lengthy and difficult, the potential benefits are immense—better situational awareness for peacekeepers and better protection for civilians.

Debates over the merits of employing modern technology in UN peacekeeping operations have occurred regularly in the Security Council and the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations. Even so, the UN’s decision-making bodies have not kept pace with the efforts of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to bring advanced tools into the field. DPKO has actively pursued its goal to incorporate modern technologies into its peacekeeping missions, using these tools to deliver more effective peacekeeping in increasingly challenging environments. The recent deaths of four Chadian troops in a suicide bombing in Mali exemplify the asymmetric threats peacekeepers now face. UN missions increasingly deploy to regions where there is no peace to keep. By improving their security and situational awareness, new technology can assist peacekeepers in overcoming these challenges and fulfilling their mandates.

In 2013, DPKO received Security Council approval to deploy Unarmed/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more colloquially known as drones, to help the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) monitor areas of the country’s eastern Kivu provinces that are difficult for blue helmets on the ground to reach. UAVs in particular have raised concerns amongst member states over which actors have access to collected information and the possession by the UN of sensitive data on the movements of troops and civilians. These concerns have made UN use of UAVs the center of debate on modern technology in peacekeeping.

Beyond UAVs, the UN has employed Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Mali to help identify new water sources for the mission that will not deplete local water tables, long-range counter battery radar in Lebanon to locate artillery fire, and forward-looking infrared systems in helicopters and aircraft in the DRC to monitor rebel movements at night.

Troop-contributing countries have also provided advanced technologies to UN peacekeeping missions but tend to limit the use of these tools to their own units, leaving other troop contingents disproportionately at risk from common threats.

A number of other technologies may prove beneficial in certain mission contexts, particularly if DPKO can provide them for all units, regardless of origin. These include: satellite phones, motion-sensitive perimeter lighting for UN bases, hand-held biometric devices, infrared systems, weapons locating systems, and thermal imaging equipment. Proponents argue that beyond improving peacekeepers’ security and situational awareness, such high technologies also allow peacekeepers to improve protection for civilians.

Some UN member states are wary that these new tools may come with serious drawbacks. If DPKO procures its own technology, troop-contributing countries fear the UN will need fewer peacekeepers while the developed nations that provide the majority of funding for peacekeeping operations fear higher funding needs. Others question the capacity of various units within each mission to utilize these tools effectively. Under-Secretary-General for Field Support Ameerah Haq also expressed reservations about the UN’s ability to bring advanced technology into theaters of operations, particularly because modern intelligence and surveillance equipment must navigate export controls in the country providing them and import restrictions in the host nation. Strict host nation regulations could block the use of advanced technologies even if the Security Council authorizes their use.

Finally, many member states fear that UN use of modern technologies could compromise the UN Charter’s principle of non-interference in internal affairs, contradict the fundamental principles of peacekeeping—consent of the parties, impartiality, and non-use of force—and encroach on the sovereignty of neighboring states. For many states in the Global South, the force multiplying effects of advanced technologies are both a boon to peacekeeper effectiveness and a possible detriment to carefully constructed limits on peacekeepers activities.

The UN Secretariat has begun to work with member states to address their concerns. For example, later this year the Secretary-General will present an overview of the effectiveness of recently implemented advanced technologies and lessons learned from the pilot UAV program in DRC to the UN General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations. Member states in turn have suggested the development of an enforceable framework to govern the provision and use of modern technology by blue helmets.

In order to gain the necessary Security Council consent to deploy advanced technologies to a greater number of peacekeeping missions, the UN will need to establish clear procurement and training mechanisms and answer many questions about the aims and limits of its peacekeeping modernization program. Advanced technologies raise legitimate sovereignty and implementation concerns.  However, with appropriate attention to upholding the fundamental principles of peacekeeping, DPKO has convinced the Security Council that in certain circumstances, the benefits of their use far outweigh the risks, evidenced by the deployment of such technologies to DRC and Mali. By continuing to work actively and responsibly to incorporate advanced technologies while addressing member states’ concerns, the UN can become a force for the future. 

Photo credit: UN Photo

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