UNITED NATIONS — 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.
U.N. officials have sought to allay the suspicions, saying there is no intention to arm the drones or to spy on countries that have not consented to their use.
The U.N. drones would have a range of about 150 miles and can hover for up to 12 hours at a time. They would be equipped with infrared technology that can detect troops hidden beneath forest canopy or operating at night, allowing them to track movements of armed militias, assist patrols heading into hostile territory and document atrocities.
“These are really just flying cameras,” said one U.N. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Our best method of protection is early warning. We recently had a patrol ambushed in Darfur. If you had a drone ahead of the patrol, it could have seen the ambush party.”
“If you know armed groups are moving in attack or battle formation early enough, you can warn civilians,” the official added.
The United Nations, which manages a force of more than 100,000 blue-helmeted troops in 15 peacekeeping missions, views drones as a low-cost alternative to expensive helicopters for surveillance operations.
Along with the pending deployments in Congo, the organization has ordered a feasibility study of their use in Ivory Coast. U.N. military planners say there is a need for drones in many other missions, including Darfur, Sudan and South Sudan, where the United Nations monitors tensions along the border of the two countries.
But they acknowledged that they have little hope that Sudan would permit them.
The United Nations has previously turned to the United States and other governments to provide overflight imagery. Rolf Ekeus, a former Swedish chief of the U.N. Special Commission in Iraq, persuaded the United States to lend the United Nations U-2 spy planes to monitor Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program in the 1990s.
More recently, Ireland, France and Belgium supplied unmanned aircraft to U.N.-backed, European-led missions in Chad, Lebanon and the Congo, and Belgium sent four drones to Congo to help provide security for presidential and legislative elections.
Two days before the 2006 election, one of the drones crashed, killing one woman and injuring two in Kinshasa, the capital.
Interest in drone technology has picked up among U.N. humanitarian and relief agencies. Last February, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research deployed the United Nations’ first drone in Port-au Prince, Haiti, to survey earthquake damage and help coordinate recovery efforts.
The use of drones in peacekeeping missions has proved more sensitive.
Masood Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, recently told reporters that member states understand the importance of surveillance in ensuring peacekeepers’ safety. But he said views differ about the appropriateness of deploying drones.
Others say the dispute centers on questions about who would have access to the images and intelligence collected by the drones and whether the next step would be arming them.
To address such questions, the U.N. special committee on peacekeeping operations, which is made up of more than 140 countries, has asked the secretary general to assess the effect of drones and other modern technology on peace missions.
Herve Ladsous, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping, asked the Security Council in a closed-door meeting Tuesday to support his plan for drones in Congo.
Britain, France and other Western members of the council joined the United States in backing the proposal. But China, Russia, Rwanda, Pakistan and Guatemala voiced concern, setting the stage for a contentious debate over the U.N. plan. Rwanda’s U.N. ambassador, Eugene-Richard Gasana, told the council that the world body’s introduction of drones carries the risk of transforming the peacekeeping mission into a belligerent force, according to a council diplomat.
But Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said much of the resistance is driven by fear that drones would replace the legions of U.N. peacekeepers.
“This really boils down to a concern from the troop contributors that they are going to be sidelined. A drone is a cheaper and more efficient alternative to an infantry patrol,” Gowan said. “I think, very frankly, that a number of the large African and Asian troops contributors are worried that if the United Nations gets involved in high-tech operations like this, that their personnel will be made redundant.”