Can UN Peacekeeping Enter The Digital Age?

Peacekeeping is in trouble. More peacekeepers are in the field than ever before, and, as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers noted, “we are asking peacekeepers to do more, in more places, and in more complex conflicts than at any time in history.” The scale and complexity of peacekeeping have revealed serious problems, including a gap between the tasks peacekeepers are given and the resources they have to accomplish their missions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon captured this dilemma in observing “[t]he needs are rising, and resources are chronically short.” To address these challenges, the Secretary-General appointed a High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations in October 2014 to catalyze the most significant attempt to reform UN peacekeeping since the Brahimi Report appeared in 2000.

Peacekeeping suffers from inadequate access to, and use of, information and communications technologies (ICTs). This problem is not new. The Brahimi Report argued that peacekeeping had to be brought into the information age: “Modern, well utilized information technology (IT) is a key enabler of many […] [peacekeeping] objectives, but gaps in strategy, policy and practice impede its effective use.” Since the Brahimi Report, UN peacekeeping operations have increasingly used ICTs, but they have not kept pace with technological innovation.

In June 2014, the UN under-secretaries general for peacekeeping operations and field support appointed an Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping to analyze how peacekeepers can more effectively utilize technological innovations, including Internet-enabled technologies. In February 2015, the UN issued the Expert Panel’s report, which included the goal that the UN be able to deploy “digital peacekeepers.”

The Expert Panel asserted that, “despite the omnipresence of advanced technology and applications in our daily lives, United Nations peacekeeping remains well behind the curve […]. [F]ew observers can argue that UN field operations manifest anything approaching up-to-date practice in the use of modern technology.” The Expert Panel also argued:

[E]specially in the areas of command and control, monitoring, reconnaissance and reporting, and information and communications technologies, peacekeeping operations simply do not currently possess anything approaching adequate numbers or types of technologies that militaries and police forces around the world accept not only as commonplace, but also as foundational to successful operations. This must change.

The Expert Panel made recommendations designed to produce immediate impact, including better integration of interoperable, Internet-connected mobile devices, sensors, surveillance tools, information-sharing systems, and strategic communications platforms (e.g., social media).

The Expert Panel also sought to be “forward thinkingeven visionaryin […] imagining the realm of possibilities.” Its vision involved military, police, and civilian digital peacekeepers equipped with the latest technologies and provided with ongoing training, review, and reach-back support. For example, the Expert Panel’s military digital peacekeeper would be equipped with “information fusion and enhanced analytic tools, fed by open source information, aerial, geospatial, and other remotely acquired data, commercial satellite imagery, and comprehensive sensor packages, support decision-making at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.” To achieve these short- and longer-term objectives, the Expert Panel identified the need to have Technology Contributing CountriesTechCCsprovide technologies, expertise, and training, just as peacekeeping operations have troop and police contributing countries.

In its report issued in June 2015, the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations endorsed the Expert Panel’s work. It highlighted the Expert Panel’s recommendations on “important solutions for employing systems to provide customizable, geographic information system-enabled solutions to enable better surveillance, monitoring and reporting tools to improve the safety and security of personnel as they implement their mission.”

Whether the Expert and High-Level Independent Panels’ recommendations to reduce the digital peacekeeping divide fare better than those in the Brahimi Report remains to be seen. The overall peacekeeping reform agenda identifies many entrenched problems that do not arise from technological deficits, including the High-Level Independent Panel’s recommendations on preventing conflict, protecting civilians, achieving rapid deployment of peacekeepers, incorporating the input of women, and integrating human rights. In such an expansive, difficult agenda, reform proposals to upgrade peacekeeping technologies could be marginalized.

In addition, technological empowerment of peacekeeping forces might raise political issues that could slow or block progress towards fielding digital peacekeepers. The High-Level Independent Panel flagged this challenge in stating that “introduction and use of new technologies must be implemented with full transparency and in consultation with Member States in order to maintain a high degree of confidence in the UN’s commitment to privacy, confidentiality and respect for state sovereignty.”

In September 2015, the United States will host a peacekeeping summit during the annual UN General Assembly meeting. This gathering will provide an opportunity to see whether the idea of digital peacekeepers gets strategic attention or is overshadowed by problems that UN member states consider more important than the technological backwardness of peacekeeping operations.

Camilla Wood

UK based Legal Aid Lawyer

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