Proponents suggest drones could monitor ceasefires and arms embargoes to reduce demand for peacekeeping troops
Should the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban ki-Moon, get his way, a newcomer will appear in the skies over eastern Congo. He has asked the Security Council to approve unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, for use in the troubled region.
Supporters of their use, including the UN's head of peacekeeping operations, Hervé Ladsous, face a diplomatic battle to get their hands on any drones. China and Russia are reluctant to back their deployment. Rwanda, which has one of the rotating seats on the Security Council, and is accused of meddling in Congo, has also opposed their use. However, America, France and more quietly Britain all support the use of unarmed, intelligence-gathering drones.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, is the largest of its kind with 17,000 troops and an annual budget of $1.4bn. The blue helmets were humiliated in November last year when they failed to stop the M23, a Congolese rebel group which the UN accuses Rwanda of backing, from taking the regional capital of Goma. Observer drones would not have thwarted the rebel advance anymore than the peacekeepers' helicopters, infantry or armour did. But they could have prevented the violations of the arms embargo that led to the offensive. They would make it "much more difficult" for Rwanda to send in military reinforcements, said a UN investigator.
The Congo setback has prompted some at the UN to attempt an overhaul of the organisation's vast and unwieldy peacekeeping operations. Since 1999 the number of peacekeepers has risen from 12,000 to 100,000. During that time the annual bill has swollen from under $2bn to more than $7.2bn. For major troop contributors like Pakistan and Bangladesh the UN stints have become moneyspinners. For others, like Ethiopia and Rwanda, the fourth and sixth largest troop suppliers, they have become a way of building diplomatic muscle. These countries will be concerned that new technology like drones-which can monitor ceasefires and arms embargoes-could reduce demand for boots on the ground. "Drones are not a panacea but they can be a force multiplier," said Richard Gowan. a peacekeeping expert at the New York-based Centre on International Cooperation.
The UN first requested drone technology from the Pentagon in 2009 and was refused. Since then the cost of UAVs has dropped and the American monopoly of the technology has ended. Top-of-the-line attack drones, like the American-made Reaper, cost $30m each, but cheaper observer drones are being sold commercially for $50,000. Ten years ago few experts imagined the UN using attack helicopters. They are now a regular in the peacekeeping arsenal.
The potential uses of UAVs stretch beyond Congo, monitoring remote areas like the border between Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, for example, or troop movements on the frontier between the Sudans. The stumbling block is the need to ask affected governments for permission to deploy the technology. Rwanda's response—"Africa shall not become a laboratory for intelligence devices from overseas," said its ambassador to the UN—suggests they will not be keen.