In the Eye of the Beholder? UN and the Use of Drones to Protect Civilians

Karlsrud J and Rosén F (2013) In the Eye of the Beholder? UN and the Use of Drones to Protect Civilians. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2 (2).


The debate on the UN’s possible use of drones for peacekeeping took a turn in 2013 when the Security Council granted the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) permission to contract surveillance drones for MONUSCO, its peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This article examines what drone capability may entail for UN peacekeeping missions. We find that surveillance drones can help missions acquire better information and improve the situational awareness of its troops, as well as inform decision-making by leadership, police, and civilian components of the mission. We see a significant potential in the use of surveillance drones to improve efforts to protect civilians, increase UN troops’ situational awareness, and improve access to vulnerable populations in high-risk theaters. The use of drones can dramatically improve information-gathering capacities in proximity to populations at risk, thereby strengthening the ability of peacekeepers to monitor and respond to human rights abuses as well as violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Drones may also enable peacekeepers to maintain stealth surveillance of potential spoilers, including arms smugglers and embargo breakers. They could additionally improve UN forces’ own targeting practices, further contributing to the protection of civilians (PoC). Furthermore, we emphasize how drone capability significantly increases peacekeepers’ precautionary obligations under IHL in targeting situations: the availability of drones triggers the obligation to use them to gather information in order to avoid civilian casualties or other violations of IHL or international human rights law.

There may soon come a shift among human rights groups, from being skeptical of the use of drones by UN peacekeepers to demanding that peacekeeping operations be equipped with surveillance drones for humanitarian and human rights reasons – shifting the current debate, which has focused largely on the negative impact of the use of drones, to a more balanced debate that considers more objectively what drones are and what they can be used for. Finally, the debate about armed drones looms on the horizon for the UN as well – and we outline some of the key dilemmas that the inclusion of such a capability will entail.

Complete article available here.