United Nations’ drones: A sign of what’s to come?

News that the United Nations is using drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) to collect information in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) illustrates the growing use — and acceptance — of surveillance technologies in humanitarian operations.

The deployment of two drones by the UN Stabilisation Mission (MONUSCO) in the DRC last week, to assist the Mission in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians, had been long foreshadowed, with requests for their use in the eastern DRC dating back to 2008; the UN Security Council effectively authorised MONUSCO to use drones in January 2013 following a 2012 letter from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commenting on the ability of drones “to enhance situational awareness and permit timely decision-making” in the eastern DRC.

Despite the careful groundwork laid for their deployment and repeated assurances that the drones would not be weaponised, the picture of UN drones flying over conflict zones raises the spectre of the infamous US drone programme and its “targeted” killings. However, a more appropriate, though equally concerning, comparison is with existing initiatives utilising surveillance technologies to assist in humanitarian work. The seemingly benign use of satellite imagery to record massive human rights abuses, for example, is now fairly well established. The privacy implications of using these technologies in humanitarian settings are, however, not well understood.

Unanswered questions

The humanitarian crisis in the conflict-wracked eastern DRC is severe and MONUSCO’s resources are limited. Over the last year alone, more than 100,000 people have been displaced, “exacerbating an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region which includes 2.6 million internally displaced persons and 6.4 million in need of food and emergency aid.” One of the key challenges MONUSCO faces is gathering information in the expanse of the eastern DRC to enable it to carry out its mandate of protecting civilians, tracking armed groups and assessing the needs of displaced populations. The information collected by the DRC drones is extensive and, no doubt, very useful to MONUSCO: the UN Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations, in discussing the Eastern DRC deployment, has noted:

One can observe the movements of the armed groups, movements of populations and can even see the arms carried by people on the ground, and it is also possible to see people in forested areas.”

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