UN Peacekeepers have been seen as a vital force for good for more than 60 years and are preparing for possible action in Libya.
The footage could have come from Congo or Sudan – young men in jeans and T-shirts with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades slung carelessly over their shoulders, leaning on the side of a lorry with a machine gun welded on the back.
But the tank, still smouldering from a missile strike and the soldiers already posting the news on Twitter, meant that it could only have come from Libya.
With “forward teams of UN peacekeepers already on standby to be deployed”, Walter Dorn, a Professor at the Royal Canadian Military College who is also a regular consultant to the UN’s Department for Peacekeeping Operations, believes a peacekeeping mission in Libya would present the UN with an opportunity to overcome its surprisingly outmoded attitude to new military technology.
It is an attitude that, according to Dorn, has often left UN commanders in the field with little option other than to tell villagers “to bang their pots and pans together if they are being attacked”, while UN officials sit in Manhattan with state-of-the-art communications equipment. It is also at odds with the increasingly tech-savvy populations they are meant to be protecting.
Dorn, the author of Keeping Watch: Monitoring, Technology, and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping Operations, who has himself served with the UN in Africa, South-east Asia and the Americas, believes that this attitude has endangered the lives of the peacekeepers and the civilians, UN commanders having been left “blind and deaf” in the middle of conflicts whose complexity means that “subtle responses are often the best responses”.
He says: “Peacekeeping is no longer about the blue berets sitting between two sides, but rather a much more complex, multidimensional challenge that involves the UN in counterinsurgency, policing, intelligence gathering and nation building, for which new military technology is essential.”
If it gets the go-ahead, the UN mission to Libya will be the 64th peacekeeping operation the UN has run, or the 65th if a mission to South Sudan is launched first. In fact, the first mission, the 1948 UN Truce Supervision Organisation to monitor the Arab-Israeli ceasefire, is still active more than 60 years later.
Despite the apparently unending nature of some of the missions, and allegations of corruption and even child sexual abuse that have blighted recent missions, peacekeeping has grown into an $8bn (£5bn) business worldwide, employing more than 120,000 soldiers, police and contractors mainly from developing nations such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, with just over 5 per cent from the European Union and the United States.
According to Dorn, despite the urgings of the UN’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping, the blue berets may face going into Libya without the military technology that most developed countries take for granted, whether this is real-time satellite imagery, “big boy’s toys” such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), simple pressure pads to warn of intruders, or even “high street” smartphones to improve communications in the field.
“The public does not realise how underequipped the UN is when the world organisation sends peacekeepers into dangerous conflict areas. Unlike in the UK, there is no Daily Mail that demands that its soldiers be properly equipped,” Dorn says. “While the UN’s internal communications are world-class, the military are stuck back in the Eighties, if not earlier, due to a lack of understanding by the civilians in the UN Secretariat of the importance of this new technology, how cheap it’s actually becoming or how many off-the-shelf solutions there are.”
There is also a lingering fear, Dorn says, of “exporting technology”, which prevents the developed nations from sharing their latest kit with the developing nations whose soldiers make up the bulk of the peacekeepers. For example, the US has recently blocked UN efforts to get third-generation night-vision goggles from Canada, while the West is already on to the fourth generation.
The lack of investment has repeatedly had horrible consequences on the ground, Dorn says. In the Congo in 2008 more than 150 villagers were killed by rebels, while only a mile away 100 UN peacekeepers without any intelligence capability struggled to make sense of what was going on.
For Dorn, while big-ticket items used under contract – such as the Mi-35 helicopter gunships that the UN used in the Congo – can have an immediate impact through providing capabilities such as night vision, cheaper technology can have just as substantial an impact, whether paid for or subsidised by the UN, or even bought by member states. “In Cyprus, remote cameras that have been placed along the Green Line to film violators have actually increased compliance, as in the past both sides would challenge reports of violations, while now with the footage they don’t,” Dorn says.
Yet the fact that these remote cameras have neither audio nor night-vision capabilities shows the challenges that remain. Colonel Kevin Shelton-Smith, the chief of Aviation Projects and Planning at UN Peacekeeping, a veteran of UN operations from Kosovo to Sudan and “likely to be in the first wave into Libya”, agrees that “the introduction of new technology has been difficult in the past” owing to the “need to make sure that everyone politically is on board first” and that this had the effect of “reducing peacekeeping to almost always a daylight activity, even though most camps are attacked at night”.
Such difficulties are exacerbated by the way each mission has to be organised on an ad hoc basis, usually with little more than two weeks’ notice and with a size and budget decided by a sometimes distant Security Council, he says.
But there is now a “broader acceptance as to how important new technology is”, so much so that there is a “new technological revolution coming down the pipeline”, he says. This might be – almost indirectly – through the use of more advanced Western helicopters with, for example, built-in night-vision kit or video surveillance, or more directly through the UN purchasing its own UAVs, which “can carry out more surveillance in a month than a man in a helicopter with a camera can in a day”.
One unintended effect is that “the more we use new technology to improve our information-gathering, the more others see it as spying”, inevitably raising UN fears of an “international incident”, Colonel Shelton-Smith says. On the ground in the eastern Congo, Olivia Kalis, Oxfam’s Policy and Advocacy co-ordinator for the Democratic Republic of Congo, notices the difference in the technological might of the countries that comprise the Security Council and the capabilities of the Bangladeshis and Moroccans who make up much of the 17,000-strong force in what is the UN’s second largest [current] peacekeeping mission. “There isn’t very much doubt that the UN don’t use the latest technology here,” she says.
Despite perceptions that the peacekeepers are generally ineffective and distant, as highlighted in the recent Oxfam report We are entirely exploitable: The lack of protection for civilians in Eastern DRC, Kalis says that “communities want the presence of the peacekeepers in their midst and want them to engage with them and listen to them”. And mobile phones or even local radio can help “communities feel more secure, as they can break down their isolation by increasing the flow of information, and help them to help themselves by allowing one village to warn another of the risk of an attack”, which is one reason why more than 300,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. As a result, very small-scale trial warden schemes using high-frequency radios have been set up in eastern Congo.
But Kalis strikes a note of pessimism. “The UN here are struggling to get enough helicopters, let alone new technology, into an area without even basic infrastructure,” she says.
In the end, while Dorn “jokes with UN staffers that the UN needs to come at least into the 1990s in its technology”, he believes that Libya could offer the peacekeepers a chance not only to catch up but to leap ahead. “The technology behind Twitter and Facebook can be of immense help for peacekeeping by encouraging local people to create imagery databases that allow the UN to get the bigger picture.
“The UN has a limited number of peacekeepers it can send out to cover emerging hotspots. So crowdsourcing can help peacekeepers make better decisions in the fog of war and other complex situations.”
And in the end, we may finally become better at making peace than war.
Some of the peacekeepers’ key roles
Role: Supervising the truce in the Arab/Israeli war, caused by the partition of Palestine in 1947.
Role: Supervising fighting between the two newly independent nations.
Role: Monitoring interference from Syria during the 1958 Lebanon crisis.
Role: Preventing further problems between Greek and Turkish Cypriots after Turkish military invasion in 1974.
Role: Stabilising the situation after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Role: Overseeing the withdrawal of Cuban troops, who had – along with the Russians – used the conflict as an ideological surrogate in the Cold War.
Role: Monitoring the demilitarised zone on the border after the first Gulf War.
Role: Verifying that no military assistance was provided across the international border between the two countries during Rwanda’s civil war.
Where: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Role: Exercising functions related to law enforcement, police reform and humanitarian relief after the Bosnian war.
Where: East Timor
Role: Providing assistance to devolve all operational responsibilities to local authorities after the country had gained independence.
The technology the Peacekeepers need
You just need to look on the shelves of B&Q for much of the technology that Walter Dorn believes could transform peacekeeping, even if you have to go elsewhere for attack helicopters:
Pressure pads or infra-red beams to detect traffic along bush tracks or even warn of an attack; CCTV to monitor green lines and refugee camps. And beyond that the now-ubiquitous UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and more James Bond style “peacekeeping satellites” to provide surveillance.
Kevin Shelton-Smith can add to the list the Bell 2012 helicopters used by the LAPD to hunt criminals, synthetic aperture radar that can see through trees and even remote-controlled paragliders for resupply.
Ultimately, he hopes for a UN helicopter as manufacturers wake up to the peacekeeping business. Although the last-minute cancellation of a $90m (£55m) project to provide the UN with drones in Congo suggests that the UN may have to wait longer for that.