For years, critics of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have tried to stigmatize them as “weapons of war.” While there’s no question that armed drones are increasingly present on today’s battlefields the world over, UAVs are also — at least potentially — instruments of “peace.” Drones are not only assisting companies, and now even schools and environmental organizations, to perform vital peacetime tasks, they are actually being deployed by the United Nations (UN) and its affiliated agencies to try to limit the violence and destruction of the world’s armed conflicts.
UN involvement with UAVs in a peacekeeping mode began in a modest fashion back in 2007 during a UN mission to Haiti. The UN mission needed to pre-empt the operations of violent anti-governmental gangs and utilized surreptitiously deployed drones as a form of intelligence support. But it wasn’t until the explosion of the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 that the UN as a whole began to embrace drones as a more strategic asset.
The UN’s peace-keeping operation in Congo first used UAVs to keep track of refugees fleeing the escalating hostilities between bitterly competing warlords that were tearing the east African nation apart. But over time, the UN deployment grew to include ongoing surveillance of illegal armed groups and broader situational awareness of social and environmental conditions affecting the entire nation. Drone images and data collected on the ground were soon relayed back to UN headquarters in New York and began informing real-time planning and decision-making.
The UN’s growing involvement with drones has not been without controversy. While the UN has decided against the use of unarmed drones alongside armed peace-keeping operations, specialized agencies like the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have called for banning their use outright. OCHA argues that the perceived advantages of unarmed drones are outweighed by the fear and confusion that their use often instills among innocents caught up in war who often feel spied upon and caught between warring drone parties, unable to distinguish one from the other.
In fact, not all UN drone operations involve overt warfare settings. In peacetime UN settings, UAVs can perform the same roles as drones deployed by civilian commercial enterprises. The UN Development Program (UNDP), for example, often supports community reconstruction projects in remote areas that are difficult to access and monitor onsite. Drones can collect the satellite-supported imagery that helps the UNDP decide where to site a project and can deliver supplies in rough terrain or in the face of a national disaster or emergency, much as they do elsewhere.
Still, even in these settings, the UN can sometimes find itself caught up in controversy. Local hostilities – perhaps separatist in nature – might be limiting UN access to disaster victims, and the UN’s intervention for strictly “humanitarian” purposes can still be perceived as favoring one side or the other. Even among those that support expanded UN drone use, there is a growing recognition that the UN needs clearer policies and regulatory guidelines – and expanded public relations – to ensure that its drone operations are focused on conflict reduction and the achievement of lasting peace..
Make no mistake, though: Many of today’s wars are highly irregular in nature, with battle lines fuzzy and the allegiance of the civilian population – their “hearts and minds” – part of the terrain of the battle. UN drone involvement, even under the best of circumstances, is likely to become messy. But given the human need, it’s just as likely to be essential.