Drones for the Congo

5 Dec

The United Nations has recently launched the first surveillance drones ever deployed by a UN peacekeeping force. And where else but the Democratic Republic of Congo, home of the first UN peacekeeping force ever authorized to use lethal force in an effort to weaken – and ultimately help defeat – the recently surrendered M23 rebel movement in DRC’s North Kivu province. Following justifiable concerns that a lethal peacekeeping force could have a detrimental impact on the humanitarian presence on the ground in DRC and the ability of civil society to effectively deliver aid to those in need, the UN has been further criticized for providing too little help, a little too late.

Two Falco drones, manufactured by the Italian Selex ES, were launched this Tuesday after the UN Security Council approved their trial use in January. Another drone will be on the way later this month and two additional drones are expected to be launched in March 2014. The drones will be used to monitor population movements in areas affected by recent violence, as well as monitor the alleged transfer of arms and munitions from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.

If the UN has managed to approve a mandate to launch drones to monitor military presence, what could this mean for the future work of UN agencies like OCHCR, UNHCR and other coordinating bodies for monitoring forced displacement, attacks on schools, and the myriad widespread human rights violations that plague DRC and surrounding regions? Ideally, this increase could signal an imminent expansion of the United Nations’ global reach into the safety and well-being of populations usually too remote and removed from urban centres to adequately monitor.

Like here in the United States, many may argue that the increased use of surveillance drones by the UN could constitute an invasion of privacy. Or, as in the case of recent allegations aimed the International Criminal Court, African nations could interpret this move as yet another “toy of declining imperial powers,” being used to remotely monitor and ultimately influence the affairs of African populations.

Here in the U.S., I for one do not generally lose too much sleep over Orwellian prophecies (despite my love of sci-fi). Perhaps that is because there is nothing that the government could pick up in my phone calls or find in my mail that could ever get me into any trouble, but I do believe that such ‘Snowden-era’ surveillance (despite the geopolitical and moral implications) is ultimately conducted in an effort to keep us safe, not to control our thoughts or actions. With a new mandate to launch surveillance drones now in the UN’s hands, could this indicate new options for the future of global security? Could this mean that rural populations in the developing world may one day be afforded the same protection and security that is arguably offered in the United States? Will the people of Syria, Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan be able to benefit from this effort to monitor the interactions of armed groups and civilians? Or will this program simply run out of support and funding next year and be remembered only as a waste of time and money?

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