The official United Nations’ Peacekeepers Day passed yesterday without much fanfare.
Secretary General Ban recognized the 111 peacekeepers around the world that died in the line of duty last year. Secretary Kerry pronounced that the U.S. is “unwavering in its commitment to these important missions.” And a think-tank crowd gathered for an event at the Stimson Center, hosted by Dr. Walter Dorn, an expert on the use of technology in peacekeeping operations.
Given the recent news that the UN is planning to launch surveillance drones over the eastern Congo and elsewhere, I was expecting the talk to cover cutting-edge technology. Was the UN planning to use thermal imaging to track war criminals? Developing a high-tech early warning system to protect refugee camps from raids?
Nope. The takeaway? UN peacekeepers are generally woefully ill-equipped. The new drone program is a major exception to the rule that peacekeeping operations in most of the world are extremely low-tech, verging on no-tech. Sure, the blue helmets have tanks and guns, and some even have helicopters, but when it comes to the types of cheap, nearly ubiquitous surveillance technology that has turned every smartphone into a nanny-monitoring spybot, the UN is off the radar. (Actually, strike that: radar is not widely used by UN peacekeeping missions either.) Only one UN peacekeeping mission (UNFICYP in Cyprus) uses closed circuit television—that’s the same technology used to keep you from stealing candy at the 7-Eleven–to monitor a ceasefire line.
This might not come as a surprise to those who know that about 80 percent of the contributing forces for peacekeeping operations come from the developing world. The UN relies almost entirely on these supporting armies to provide advanced equipment. When US or NATO forces are involved they bring their high-tech tools, but when they leave, which is usually as quickly as possible, they take their toys home with them. (Countries like India often bring some less advanced but still useful technology like infrared cameras on their helicopters, but given that their partners in the DRC include Pakistan and Bangladesh, they choose not to share.)
There are certainly some valid reasons why the UN has been conservative in its approach to surveillance technologies—namely, they don’t want to be labeled a spy agency—but still,it’s hard to argue that these guys shouldn’t get a least a little more technology that would almost definitely help save lives. Among the ideas that Dorn has proposed: tethered surveillance balloons like those widely used by NATO forces in Afghanistan, upgraded night vision equipment for patrols, and motion activated, solar powered lights to help protect refugee camps. The cost of the consumer version of that last technology per person? Forty bucks.