Impact of New Technologies on United Nations Peacekeeping Operations

By Felix Manig

The UAVs used by the UN are unarmed and used by the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo to track movements of hostile actors and bolster humanitarian responses. Image credit: Felix Manig, 2014, Goma, DRC

Rapid technological advancements are changing the nature of warfare and military operations, with serious implications for peace and security. At present, states are investing immense sums into the research and development of emerging technologies for their national security. This phenomenon is led by the U.S. government which approves nearly $3 billion annually for its defense research agency DARPA. As technology becomes ever more essential in an evolving and complex world, how can less affluent security projects like multilateral United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs) benefit from new technologies and integrate the positive effects into their mission? Introducing advanced technology into peacekeeping missions yields significant opportunities but must go hand in hand with strengthening the existing capabilities of UN diplomats and agencies that address the socio-economic, development and political issues related to the conflict.

UNPKOs have a poor technology track record

UNPKOs have been slow to adapt to technological change. In part, this is because the private sector is most often better situated than governments or bureaucratic organisations to harness and promote innovation. Secondly, the UN peacekeeping infrastructure is chronically underfunded and currently faces threats of further financial cuts. In February 2015, an independent Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation appointed by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support found that many UN field operations were lacking the technological capabilities considered necessary by militaries and law enforcement to operate effectively. It also cited these deficits as a direct reason for tech-enabled militaries of developed member states to refuse to participate in the field. With missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan or Syria representing some of the world’s most complex conflict environments, can new technologies soften the critical voices that attest these PKOs a failure to execute their Security Council mandate?

How can UNPKOs benefit from new technologies?

As the United Nations system is set to undergo significant reforms introduced by the new Secretary-General António Guterres, some changes and amendments include scaling up the technological capabilities of peacekeeping operations. The positive effects of new technologies are most likely to be useful for the prevention and response to conflicts, intelligence gathering, and communications system of missions.

In his vision statement, the Secretary-General stressed his commitment to a “culture of prevention” to bring about peace, political solutions and sustainable development to crisis hotspots. Technology can play a central role in supporting the UN’s endeavor to prevent conflict. Most importantly, the collection and analysis of data about crime and conflict could result in indicators which in turn can be used to shorten warning and response times for peacekeepers on the ground. Systematic monitoring and mapping of crises can promote patterns and models to make the prevention of human rights abuses or cease-fire violations more efficient and cost-effective. For example, when the UN tested the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the DR Congo and Central African Republic (CAR), significant advancements were made in the protection of civilians from ambushes by armed groups. UAVs also allowed peacekeepers to maintain improved situational awareness by tracking migration movements or performing aerial reconnaissance of hostile actors, thereby helping them to operate in difficult asymmetric threat environments.

Another important step in ramping up the prevention of conflict and violence would be a concerted effort among UN member states to develop an intelligence agency within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. While UNPKOs have established intelligence-gathering units, they are largely based on an ad-hoc approach and member states have expressed confusion around this concept. The UN doesn’t like to see itself as an intelligence-gathering unit; however, intelligence capabilities are required if peacekeeping operations want to effectively address threats to international peace and security in the twenty-first century. Several issues currently impede the development of an intelligence oversight body, including the reluctance of member states to share information and equipment, questions of accountability, and the lumbering communications infrastructure of many peacekeeping operations, making it difficult to bring together the civilian, police and military components of a mission.

The communication network of UNPKOs is the third pillar that could benefit enormously from improved technology by incorporating local populations into missions – dubbed along the lines of “participatory peacekeeping”. Some recent ideas include letting locals send their information, observations or alerts directly to the peacekeeping force as a confidence-building measure and as a means to engage local communities in the process of conflict resolution. Modern communications equipment and better coordination between peace operations would also help improve the safety and security of UN personnel and assets.

A holistic approach to peacekeeping

At the same time, it is essential to understand that while new technologies can offer great assistance to UNPKOs, they are not a panacea to prevent all forms of conflict and violence. The heads of UNPKOs should be careful not to overstate the opportunities of big data analytics and simply replace their understanding of local politics and context-sensitive approaches with statistical models. It would be extremely foolish to discard the value of personal relationships that diplomats and conflict mediators have formed with actors on the ground over time or the important work of other UN agencies in the field.

Danger also lies in the adverse effects modern communication and technology can have within conflict settings. Concerns over internet privacy, censorship, and surveillance, or the opportunities technologies offer to extremist groups for recruitment and propaganda tools should all be considered. Furthermore, as armed drones or offensive cyber attacks become more frequent in today’s conflicts, international laws and norms are yet to materialise to contain their irresponsible use.

Missing the opportunities new technologies provide means missing chances for peace. The fact that the UN has adopted a strategy for technology and innovation for its PKOs is a promising step. At the same time, current operations must also address the technological capabilities of adversaries and civilians in conflict zones. In the end, PKOs need a holistic approach by effectively combining the opportunities of modern equipment and innovation, political solutions, and paths to economic development to secure peace.

Felix (@felix_manig) is a postgraduate in International Relations at Kings College London. He focuses on conflict resolution strategies, political violence, and human rights. Outside of academia, he is Series Editor at Strife and writes for the Peacekeeping Project at the United Nations Association of Germany.


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