International NGOs have rebuffed a recent offer by the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to use drones for humanitarian information gathering, saying this could represent a dangerous “blurring of the lines” between military and humanitarian actors in the conflict.
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are seen by some within the DRC humanitarian community as potentially providing a “useful technology” for relief operations, Frances Charles, World Vision’s advocacy officer in eastern DRC, told IRIN. But to accept MONUSCO’s offer would be akin “to handing out food aid from the back of a tank”.
Charles said MONUSCO, which “is party to the conflict”, had proposed to the humanitarian community that drone platforms could be shared with the military for information gathering, but that such an arrangement would compromise the core principles of relief organizations: neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.
The drones have become closely associated with military operations and have been dubbed “loud mosquitoes” by local people, said Charles. MONUSCO has not made efforts to raise local awareness about the purpose or activities of its drones “so people don’t know if they are armed or not,” she said.
The proposed use of drones by MONUSCO for both military and humanitarian purposes would “muddy the waters” as local communities and armed groups would be unable to tell whether a drone mission was military or humanitarian, she said. She urged UN humanitarian agencies to shun any offer to use drone information.
In a 14 July 2014 statement the international NGOs, including Concern, Care, Handicap International and Finn Church Aid, said: “If data gathered during a flight with a humanitarian objective informs combat operations or is used for military intelligence, there is a clear compromise of neutrality.”
The stance taken by the North Kivu Chef de Mission forum, which represents international NGOs in eastern DRC, was seen by them as particularly pertinent as “MONUSCO is setting a significant precedent as the first DPKO [Department for Peacekeeping Operations] mission in the world to use UAVs formally integrated into the mission’s civilian structure…
“Whilst it is anticipated that debate concerning the use of UAVs in DPKO missions will be on-going and evolve, caution and rigor must be applied at this early stage to ensure the correct precedent is set,” the statement said.
Eye in the sky
Two drones were first deployed by MONUSCO in December 2013 and April 2014; three more were added as part of a UN private military contract with the Italian company Selex-ES, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica corporation.
Fitted with high definition infrared cameras and with no capacity to carry weaponry, they have quickly become an essential piece of equipment for MONUSCO and provide invaluable military intelligence in an operational theatre characterized by myriad armed groups roaming across vast swathes of eastern DRC.
Poor roads and inhospitable terrain favour local militias over the heavily mechanized MONUSCO force which is carrying out its robust Security Council mandate to “eliminate” groups which do not demobilize.
Drone technology was being used for a variety of purposes beyond the military campaign, a serving British army officer coordinating MONUSCO’s drone deployment, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
He said daily flights monitor Goma’s nearby volcano, which has been “bubbling a bit” in recent months, using infrared cameras to detect new fissures; the information is shared with local volcanologists. The drones can also map evolving camps for internally displaced persons, as well as illegal cross-border movements (people not using established border crossings), illegal checkpoints and charcoal operations.
During a 5 May 2014 training exercise involving drones and a patrol vessel to develop strategies to thwart the trafficking of goods to and from neighbouring Rwanda on Lake Kivu, drones identified a capsized ferry with about 20 people in the water. Helicopters and the patrol boat were alerted and 14 people were rescued. Without “the coincidence”, all those in the water would probably have drowned, the British officer said.
MONUSCO drones have a maximum range of about 250km and can spend 12 hours in the air, though operations are generally restricted to eight hours. They can be airborne within 30 minutes of being tasked, and on average fly two missions a day.
During recent border clashes between Rwandan troops and the DRC national army, drones were “retasked” in the air to monitor the situation, though there is an operational policy for the aircraft to keep at least five nautical miles from the border to prevent any disputes with the neighbouring state, the officer said.
Able to operate both night and day, usually at about 5,000 metres, drones can simultaneously stream real-time imaging to three sources: the pilot flying the drone from Goma airport, MONUSCO’s headquarters and, if need be, a laptop on the ground.
The officer said the drones can provide MONUSCO forces and the DRC national army (FARDC) with real time tactical information during engagements with armed groups, potentially a huge advantage, but did not elaborate.
“Information is just information, it depends what you do with it,” he said. There are tell-tale signs that can indicate imminent attacks on villages. When people congregate together at night - drones’ thermal imaging capacity can easily detect this - it is usually an indication that a community is about to be attacked and MONUSCO can then employ preventative measures.
New “National Guidelines for the Coordination between Humanitarian Actors and MONUSCO” are about to be adopted.
Developed in cooperation with the broad humanitarian community and MONUSCO, they are a revised version of guidelines first adopted in 2006.
A final draft document seen by IRIN does not directly address the use of information gleaned through drones.
The draft guidelines recognize “there are situations where either humanitarian actors or MONUSCO possess information that is confidential and cannot be shared with others without compromising the identity of the source or exposing individuals to potential risk. In such cases, it is understood that such information will not be shared between humanitarian actors and MONUSCO.”
The document also acknowledges that there are regular briefings between MONUSCO and humanitarians with “information on relief and humanitarian activities with relevance for both actors, and information on threats to the safety and security of humanitarian actors”.
‘The problem is,” Charles said, “that we [humanitarian actors at the briefings] don’t know what information comes from drones and what doesn’t. What are we meant to do? Block our ears? That has not been resolved yet.”
MONUSCO, the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation, has over 21,000 uniformed personnel. Its Force Intervention Brigade is comprised of Malawian, South African and Tanzanian troops.