Drone technology: the humanitarian potential

Will drones be added to the arsenal of tools available in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations?

Mabel González Bustelo
3 October 2013

The use drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), to carry out targeted killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen has been one of the most controversial aspects of the ‘global war on terror’. Al Qaeda commanders and operatives have been ‘eliminated’ in remote drone operations that have also caused numerous civilian casualties. Doubts about the supposed efficiency of this technology must be added to others regarding the legality of their use according to international law. Nevertheless, drones seem to be here to stay.

The use of drones is widening in scope alongside technological developments, but their purposes are multiple. They are not always weapons systems; currently drones are a tool to monitor and track illegal drug routes in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and their use is rising in other areas. Two of them are especially relevant in conflict and post-conflict settings: the possible use of drones as a tool in peacebuilding missions and in humanitarian action.

The special envoy to the Ivory Coast, Youssoufou Bamba, asked the UN to deploy unarmed drones as a tool for the international peacekeeping operation. The mission is being gradually reduced, with around 8,000 soldiers remaining, and further reductions before 2015. Although post-conflict rehabilitation continues, challenges remain, among them: the instability in the west part of the country, the disarmament and reintegration of former combatants and the lack of surveillance on the Liberian border. There is concern that this forest area could easily become a safe haven for militia or other armed groups. Drones are expected to improve surveillance and information gathering capacities.

It may be strange to think of drones as a peacebuilding tool given their mainstream identification as an attack weapon, but the Ivory Coast example is not the first in this regard. In January 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of drones in the framework of the peace-building mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Even before that, international troops used them limitedly in Chad, the Central African Republic and Haiti after the earthquake. The main use of drones will be for the gathering of information about movements of troops or militia groups, and about refugee and displaced populations. They will also monitor the potential smuggling of guns and other resources. This information is expected to improve the safety of convoys and routes, and to strengthen the mission mandate in terms of protection of civilians by providing real-time information about possible threats.

The use of drones in peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions may deliver fruitful outcomes, and their potential is high. Drones do not need human pilots and operate in autonomous ways. They can fly over and gather information about isolated areas or places with high degrees of insecurity, without personal risk. The information about potential threats and risks is then accessible in real time.

But some important aspects are far from resolved. First, non-processed information must be subject to analysis, processing and storing - all of them tasks that require specialized capacities and skills. The UN is considering the possibility of contracting private firms to provide this expertise. Another issue to be addressed is the management of information in the mid and long term, and how this will be reconciled with issues of sovereignty and privacy. Guarantees should be provided to the host states that information will be used for its stated purpose and not for others (like intelligence).

In operational terms, strongly related to mission success, one issue is critical. Updated and detailed information about potential threats to populations in danger and is important for addressing the protection of civilians. But in the end, this is a matter of political will. If the UN missions deploy drones and raise expectations among the population, what will the price be if there is no response in the face of violence? In the past, UN missions have been strongly criticized because they did not have an adequate mandate to protect civilians; will the use of drones lead to improvements or to further reputational damage?

The DRC case may prove to be a breaking point in the potential use of drones for peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The MONUSCO mandate is strong in terms of protection of civilians, and the UNSC Resolution 1925 authorizes the use of “all necessary means” to carry out the mandate. The language is similar to that of Resolutions for the authorisation of the use of force in the past. Could this eventually open the door to the use of armed drones in the DRC? Diplomatic sources from Rwanda, the country accused of being behind the main DRC militia (M23) have expressed deep concern over current developments. If considered at any time, that option may open a Pandora’s box in this type of operations.

The positive or negative evaluation of drone technology should depend on their objectives and actual use. This is a critical point when the debate is so contaminated. The potential is immense in peacebuilding missions, but also brings risks and challenges. If an attack over civilians is imminent, information is available in real time and protection is within the scope of the mandate (as in the DRC): who will be accountable in case of inaction? Who will assume responsibility? 

The humanitarian ‘community’ is also involved in a growing debate about drones and their potential uses and implications. On one hand, humanitarian organizations working in countries and areas affected by US drone attacks have seen how the perception of neutrality weakens in the face of the local suspicions and concerns grow about their potential intelligence role (this is especially true for western NGOs). The situation undermines their security and safety, as well as access to vulnerable people.

Another debate relates to the operational use of drones and its possibilities. The former US ambassador for HIV/AIDS and global health, Jack C. Chow, has defended the idea that drones will prove to be huge operational assets as soon as the technology improves and cost drops. He is an example of voices claiming to leave aside the ‘drone stigma’ and explore possibilities to use them to deliver emergency aid to isolated or threatened populations, as well as to connect dispersed nodes (like medical teams working in isolated and remote areas). According to this perspective, drones will expand the range of operations and their efficiency without putting staff safety at risk.  

Drones are subject to the same rules as any other transportation means. Its access to a country to deliver aid and protection must respect obligations under international law and international humanitarian law: consent remains the main principle here. If the state refuses access, drones will not provide an advantage. In operational terms, the aerial delivery of aid (airdrops) is an option of last resort for humanitarian actors, to be used only in extreme circumstances. Even in those cases, the advantages of drones are not clear with regard to present means that offer more cargo capacity and autonomy.

Drones and their technological development will remain hotly contested within international affairs. Will they finally be incorporated as part of the range of humanitarian tools? At the moment, there are more questions than answers. Will the information gathered by drones be used to support accusations of war crimes or crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court? And what implications will this option have for future peacebuilding or humanitarian operations?

In the final analysis, if the information and the mandate so allow, the question becomes one of accountability for failures in civilian protection. Can technology be a substitute for political will?

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