U.N. wants to use drones for peacekeeping missions

by Colum Lynch, The Washington Post  |  published on January 10, 2013

The M23 rebel group advances southward

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 Congo, Rwanda and Uganda 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.

“This is the idea that the U.N. peacekeeping authorities are putting forward to have unarmed UAVs participate in peacekeeping missions. This would only happen with the consent of the country or the countries where the mission would operate, and their use would not impact in any way on sovereignty,” Nuland said. “Again, they would be unarmed, and they would only be carrying photographic equipment.”

But the effort is encountering resistance from governments, particularly those in 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 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 United Nations. “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.

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