Drones buzz through the skies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to monitor this mineral-rich country that has been racked with war for 20 years. The U.N. Stabilization Mission, or MONUSCO, a peacekeeping operation with over 21,000 personnel, brought two of these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles into action in the DRC last April. MONUSCO then offered to share drone-collected information with humanitarian NGOs working in the DRC.
The offer was emphatically rejected.
The NGOs reject drones because MONUSCO is a military operation. International NGOs are humanitarian and as such are bound to the principles of “neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.” Using drones for both military and humanitarian information gathering compromises these principles.
A July 14, 2014 statement released by NGOs working in the DRC pointed to the potential for data gathered with a humanitarian objective nevertheless informing combat operations.
2006’s guidelines for how humanitarian actors and MONUSCO are to coordinate has recently been revised, but IRIN reports that a final draft “does not directly address the use of info gained through drones.”
NGOs are concerned that they have no guarantee the info will come from non-drone sources.
Drones have served both military and non-military purposes in the past. For example, while one drone might use its infrared camera to search for people congregating at night (a sign of an attack brewing), another drone might be tasked with monitoring the geological activity of a volcano.
On May 5, 2014, drones in Rwanda that were flying over Lake Kivu relayed information indicating a ferry had capsized, leaving 20 people in the water struggling for their lives. Rescuers saved 14 people who probably would have drowned otherwise.
However, the issue here is not whether drones are capable of serving a non-military function; humanitarian organizations know they would find information gathered by drones helpful. The issue is that, according to certain core principles, humanitarian NGOs cannot take sides in a war.
The drones’ many uses could embroil the NGOs in the conflict because MONUSCO might use “humanitarian information” for military purposes.
The region these drones patrol is highly unstable, with many armed groups fomenting conflict there. Last June, members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a militia group with a large presence in the DRC, proclaimed their desire to disarm and negotiate. Provided the offer to disarm was genuine, some thought this might stabilize the region to a certain extent.
However, recent attacks on barracks in Kinshasa by a separate group highlight how one party’s exit from the conflict can hardly be used to foretell an end to the larger conflict. Because of this, drones will remain a fixture in the DRC’s skies.