Drones for Peace?

As I commented at the beginning of this blog, the scope is wide and the issues to be covered many. Maybe too much! To address them, sometimes I write about complex and far reaching topics, while others try to segment them in smaller parts. Finally there are aspects that are both concrete and important, all related to violence and peacebuilding. This is one of those cases.

The question at the title may appear as a paradox, if we identify drones just as a weapon for targeted (and distant) killings. But there are many other issues related to drones that are already subject to debate and becoming a practical tool in different situations. So, let’s go ahead: Can drones make a contribution to peacebuilding?

Military Drone Predator

The technological advancements related to drones are setting the pace for a multiplicity of debates in international relations. The most known and controversial use of drones is that of the US in the ‘war on terror’: targeted killings of leaders and militants of Al Qaeda and other groups designated as enemies.

This use of drones has raised an array of legal and ethical debates. The use of drones for targeted killings, is legal or illegal according to International Humanitarian Law? What is the impact on the Law on human rights? And what the impact on the relations with local authorities? What happens when they cause civilian casualties?

The US has been the first in developing and adopting this technology in war. Those who defend it argument that drones are accurate and allow ‘clean’ operations, with no casualties in one’s side. But as technology develops, they will be cheaper and accesible for many. What will this mean when other countries use them in the same ways? And when non State armed groups (rebels, organized crime and the forth) own them? 

Let’s take another point. Although it is only at first steps, drones are becoming a tool for peacebuilding missions and humanitarian operations. Here also are positions for and against, and the questions and doubts at stake are different but critical. In peacebuilding missions, their main use is the gathering of information about potential threats, something that would allow a quicker response. Drones have also been proposed for the monitoring of human rights in conflict or unsafe areas.

The information gathered by drones in peacebuilding missions, can be used to build complaints in the International Criminal Court? What are the implications of this possibility for future operations? Who will be responsible if information about threats to civilians is available in real time but protection is not guaranteed? And a last questions: can technology be a substitute for the political will to reach peace?

At the beginning of this year, the UN approved drones as a tool for the Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), to gather real time information about potential threats to civilians and monitoring smuggling activities. It is a good case study since MONUSCO is by large the biggest UN peace mission; it has a new mandate including the potential use of force for the protection of civilians, and drone deployment is a new avenue to explore. It also raises many doubts, of course.

If you are interested in the use of drones in peacebuilding, maybe you with to read this article that I published recently.

What is your opinion? 

Protection of Civilians in the DRC: Steps and Dilemmas

Operations of search and seizure of unauthorized weapons have started in the East of the DRC. The UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) had given everyone in the city of Goma and surrounding area until August 1st to hand on their weapons, including members of rebel movements. The MONUSCO deployment includes now an Intervention Brigade of 3.000 members with a mandate to use lethal force if necessary to address disarmament and protect civilians. The security area includes the city, the airport, refugee camps and the military bases. Within that perimeter it is expected that everybody carrying a weapon will be disarmed.

The security zone is a preventive measure intended to put limits to the rebel group M23, although everyone in possession of a weapon will be disarmed and considered an imminent threat of physical violence. The new mandate and rules of engagement, as well as the presence of the Intervention Brigade, mark a new departure in UN peace operations. But it is not without risk.

Diverse groups and interests at stake

The M23 is one of the main rebel groups operating in the DRC. It is probably the most well-known, due to their 2012 offensive against Goma. They were able to capture the city for a whole week with no opposition from Congolese armed forces neither international troops. Their operations have caused the displacement of more than 100,000 persons. One of its leaders is under custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and both the UN and the DRC Government accuse Rwanda of providing steady support for this group (something that this country harshly denies). Last May the M23 started a new offensive in this area with indiscriminate attacks and civilian casualties, while the Intervention Brigade was completing its deployment.

There are around 25 armed groups operating in the East of the DRC, in the regions of Kivu North and Kivu South, according to Oxfam. This is a typical feature in modern wars, that may last for years if not decades and have many interests at stake. The DRC is not only a huge country but also immensely rich in natural resources, especially valuable and strategic minerals. Alliances among armed groups are shifting and unstable, but they usually try to control mines (of gold, coltan, tin and other minerals) and transportation routes. With this, they can control the mineral trade and ‘tax’ people travelling by those routes. As Oxfam said, civilians have become a commodity of war here.


Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Although the DRC has a problematic colonial legacy, widespread violence started in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide. Years later this was called the ‘first African world war’, in which a number of countries of the continent took part representing different national, regional and international interests. Behind the war, political and economic interests merged, as all the groups took advantage of the situation to spoil natural resources and make money through a well established war economy (including, of course, DRC and neighbouring countries elites).

By 2003 a peace agreement gave place to a transition government, and a reconstruction process that never reached the East of the country. Here an array of local and foreign groups have operated and the interests at stake are multiple and complex. Last February 24th a new regional peace accord was signed with support of 11 countries, but it has no lasted. In this region the game at play involves the control of land with high potential for agriculture and cattle and important mines. The ethnic balances are fragile after massive population displacement, and there is continuous interference of external actors like Rwanda and (to a lesser extent nowadays) Uganda.

The humanitarian crisis is one of the gravest in the world, with around 2.6 million internal displaced people and more than 6 million persons dependent on emergency and food aid. An estimated number of 4 million have died in this war, as a result of direct violence or associated crises like displacement, malnutrition and diseases.

Protection of civilians and dilemmas of the potential use of lethal force

The new MONUSCO mandate including the use of lethal force if necessary to disarm combatants in the security area relies on the principle of protection of civilians in armed conflict. However it also involves risks and dilemmas. One of them is how to use force with maximum caution in order to avoid getting caught within the war dynamics, and become part of the problem and not of the solution (as happened in Somalia in 1992). Another one is for humanitarian organizations that must rely on protection and security provided by MONUSCO while safeguarding their independence and neutrality.

According to the Congolese think tank CRESA, the intervention force can have a positive impact on civilian protection and will probably be welcomed by the population. But in order to achieve success, they must establish open and honest communication channels with the population and their representatives. The Intervention Brigade operations would also have more possibilities of success if they were a step among many in an ambitious framework of State and security reform and of protection of civilians with different means.

The most pressing problem in the DRC is institutional fragility and scarce State capacity. The use of military means is necessary but probably not enough substitute for the political will to address root causes and grievances behind the conflict (including management of natural resources), improve security institutions and implement programs of good governance. Measures are also acutely needed at regional and international levels to curtail the flow of weapons, training and military support from outside, and the international trade of natural resources that enriches many (if not all) parts of this conflict while the population suffers the consequences. Natural resources, of course, end up in developed markets and international companies are not completely free of guilt.

The protection of civilians has been absent for a long time in the DRC, and the UN has faced important criticisms for its inability to undertake decisive action. The new step, if correctly implemented, could be welcomed by the population and civil society in the DRC. However, the risks associated to the pursued new military strategy are also evident.

Proteger a los civiles en la RDC: avances y dilemas

El 1 de agosto terminó el plazo que la Misión de Estabilización de la ONU en la República Democrática del Congo (MONUSCO) dio a los grupos rebeldes para desarmarse, y las operaciones de búsqueda y requisa de armas han comenzado. Esta misión cuenta con una nueva Brigada de Intervención de 3.000 efectivos y con un mandato para hacer uso de fuerza letal si fuera necesaria para garantizar el desarme. La ciudad de Goma y sus áreas circundantes son el objetivo: todos aquellos que porten un arma sin pertenecer al ejército serán desarmados, incluyendo a los miembros de grupos rebeldes.

El perímetro de seguridad está pensado especialmente para poner límites a los movimientos del grupo rebelde M23 e incluye la ciudad de Goma, el aeropuerto, los campos de refugiados y las bases militares tanto del ejército como de la misión multinacional. Cualquiera que entre armado dentro de esta zona se considerará “una amenaza inminente de violencia física” contra los civiles y la misión y se procederá a su desarme. Es un paso sin precedentes que, sin embargo, conlleva riesgos.

Diversos grupos e intereses en juego

El M23 es uno de los grupos más conocidos de los que operan en la RDC, debido a su ofensiva del pasado año sobre Goma, cuando tomaron la ciudad durante una semana ante la impotencia del ejército y las tropas internacionales. Sus operaciones ha forzado el desplazamiento de más de 100.000 personas. Uno de sus líderes está desde principios de este año bajo custodia de la ICC y tanto la ONU como miembros del gobierno de la RDC acusan a Ruanda de darle apoyo (algo que este país niega). En mayo pasado comenzaron una nueva ofensiva con ataques indiscriminados y víctimas civiles, justo cuando comenzó el despliegue de la Brigada de Intervención.

Otros 25 grupos armados actúan en las provincias de Kivu Norte y Sur, según Oxfam. El fenómeno es típico en guerras tan largas y con tantos intereses en juego. La RDC es un país enorme y rico en recursos naturales, especialmente minerales. Las alianzas son cambiantes pero el objetivo es controlar en cada lugar las minas de oro y otros minerales y las rutas de transporte, donde se pueden cobrar “impuestos” a quienes circulan.

Grupos armados en el este de la RDC, noviembre de 2012. Fuente: Oxfam

Grupos armados en el este de la RDC, noviembre de 2012. Fuente: Oxfam

La violencia en la RDC comenzó en 1994, después del genocidio de Ruanda, y años más tarde se le llamó “la primera guerra mundial africana” por la participación de numerosos países del continente. La violencia tenía intereses políticos y también económicos, pues prácticamente todos los grupos (incluyendo elites en el poder y de países vecinos) aprovecharon la situación para lucrarse con los recursos naturales.

En 2003 un acuerdo de paz dio paso a un gobierno de transición y un proceso de reconstrucción que nunca alcanzó el este del país. Aquí operan diversos grupos nacionales y extranjeros y el juego de intereses es amplio y complejo. El pasado 24 de febrero se firmó un acuerdo regional de paz y seguridad para el este, que ha tenido corta duración. En esta región está en juego el control de tierras ricas para la agricultura y la ganadería, y yacimientos de importantes minerales como oro y coltán. A la vez, tiene un equilibrio étnico precario después de grandes desplazamientos de población y hay una continua injerencia de actores externos como Ruanda y Uganda.

La crisis humanitaria es una de las más graves del mundo, con 2,6 millones de desplazados internos y más de 6 millones de personas dependientes de ayuda alimentaria y humanitaria. En esta guerra se calcula que han muerto cuatro millones de personas como resultado directo de la violencia o por fenómenos asociados como el desplazamiento, desnutrición y enfermedades.

La protección de civiles y los dilemas del uso de la fuerza

La posibilidad de que la MONUSCO use la fuerza respondería al principio de protección de civiles en zonas de conflicto. Sin embargo también plantea dilemas. Uno de ellos es usar la fuerza con la máxima precaución para evitar pasar a convertirse en parte del problema al involucrarse directamente en la guerra (como ocurrió en Somalia). Otro problema, para las organizaciones humanitarias, es que deben confiar en la protección que les ofrece la misión a la vez que salvaguardan su neutralidad e independencia ante la población.

Según la organización congoleña CRESA, la fuerza de intervención puede tener un impacto positivo en la protección de civiles pero para eso debe establecer canales claros y transparentes de comunicación con la población. Este paso podría tener un impacto más claro si fuera el primero dentro de un programa más ambicioso de reforma del estado y de la seguridad, y de protección de los civiles.

Por último, el verdadero problema en la RDC es la fragilidad institucional y la escasa capacidad del estado para ejercer sus funciones. El uso de medios militares puede ser necesario pero no sustituye a la voluntad política de gestionar los factores del conflicto (incluyendo los recursos), mejorar las instituciones de seguridad y adelantar programas de buen gobierno que puedan contribuir a lograr una paz sostenible. A la vez, faltan medidas en los ámbitos regional e internacional para controlar la llegada de armas y entrenamiento desde el exterior y la salida de minerales que enriquecen a varias partes de este conflicto mientras la población sufre las consecuencias.

Proteger a los civiles ha sido siempre una tarea pendiente en la RDC (y le ha generado a la ONU fuertes críticas por inacción). El nuevo paso, por tanto, puede ser bienvenido por la población. Los riesgos de adoptar una estrategia principalmente militar también son evidentes.