A new fleet of drones is set to make its first flight over the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, an area where one rebel group, the M23, was recently defeated, but where many others still operate.
The Italian-built Falco drones, capable of carrying several types of high resolution sensors, will be used to monitor the movement of rebel groups.
DW: Now that M23 have been defeated, could the deployment of drones mean that the demise of the other rebel groups is not far off?
Phil Clark: I think this new use of drones by the UN raises a range of very important issues. The first one is that it highlights that Congo is in many ways a laboratory for UN peacekeepers with a range of equipment and a range of experiments being used. But I think there are big questions here – one is what is it like for a non-state actor to use drones and this type of equipment, what kind of information will it be gathering, who exactly will have access to that information and what will they do with it and so I think we need a lot more clarity from the UN as to exactly how these drones will be used.
You mention access to the information. Couldn’t it end up in the wrong hands?
Again, I think this is an issue the UN needs to clarify, because there hasn’t been a great deal of explanation as to how these drones will be used. There is a great deal of fanfare about this new technology, but I think we need a lot more information from the UN about this and, I think, guarantees that the information will be used by responsible parties. We need much more clarity about exactly what information will be gathered, who that information will be shared with, what kinds of policy questions that information can be used to address, and what the limits would be on this type of information.
The terrain of the DRC is full of thick and dense forest. How difficult will it be for the drones to detect any movement?
I think it will still be very difficult for anyone using these drones to get a clear sense of what’s going on the ground and I think what this highlights is that technology is never a substitute for knowledge and expertise. The UN peacekeeping mission over the last 15 years has often found it very difficult to operate in this complex terrain of conflict in eastern Congo and so even having drones and the information in the inside that might be possible, this isn’t going to do the UN any good if it is not coupled with a really deep-seated understanding of the dynamics on the ground. I think we should be cautious about expecting that new technology to solve all of these problems.
Neighboring countries like Rwanda have expressed concerns about these drones. Are such concerns justified?
I think many of the countries in the region have concerns about the new use of drones, particularly when it is a non-state actor that has access to this technology. I think the regional governments want to know what will the UN do with this information, how long will the drones be there. Could, for example, information gathered by the drones be used for means other than the peacekeeping mission? I think there is a great deal of clarity that is needed on these issues. What the UN has done in the last couple of days is emphasize that it wants to use the drones against the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) rebel group. This I think is a concession to Rwanda, in essence to say we are going introduce this new technology, but we are going to use it against some of your major rebel enemies in the region. So I think the UN is trying to play a careful diplomatic game here, and trying to assure Rwanda that the use of drones isn’t going to contravene their national sovereignty and could in fact be in their national interest.
Let’s talk about expertise. Does the UN mission in Congo have enough experts to operate these drones?
This I think remains to be seen. One thing we do know about the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo over the last 15 years is that it hasn’t always had the expertise at its fingertips that it needed. It didn’t always have experts with a detailed knowledge of the ethnic groups and the conflict dynamics, particularly in Ituri and North and South Kivu provinces of Congo. That is one of the reasons why this peacekeeping mission until recently has really struggled to fulfill its mandate. There really was a lack of knowledge about the terrain within the peacekeeping mission and so the introduction of drones doesn’t automatically deal with that particular issue. I think it is a challenge for the UN to make sure they’ve got the right people in the right places, that those people have a very in-depth knowledge of this very complex terrain and that ultimately they can do a better job as a result.
To return to my first question – are the days of rebel militia groups in Congo numbered?
I don’t think it is going to be as straight forward as that. We have seen the UN have this quite incredible military victory against the M23 rebels recently, but it remains to be seen whether they can do likewise against the FDLR and the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) rebels which are the next two rebel groups on their list. We have to remember that there could be as many as 30 or 40 different rebel formations, particularly in North and South Kivu. Most of those groups have a very long history of operating in this area of Congo, some of them have a high degree of support from the local population and so it’s not going to be the flick of a switch that brings about change and ends these rebel movements. It’s going to be a long painstaking effort and I think we are only at the beginning of that process at the moment.
Phil Clark is a lecturer in international politics at SOAS, University of London