With top United Nations and Government officials and a crowd of reporters looking on, the world Organization today launched its first-ever unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in the interest of better protecting civilians in the restive east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"This is a first in the history of the United Nations that such an advanced technological tool has been used in peacekeeping mission," Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations told journalists attending the launch of the unarmed aircraft in Goma, capital North Kivu Province.
"The UN needs to use these kinds of tools to better perform its mandate," he added of the UAVs, popularly referred to as "drones". The UN Stabilization Mission in the country, known as MONUSCO, has, among its primary tasks, protecting civilians in the area.
The eastern DRC has been wracked for many years by fighting between the Government and various armed groups that has affected millions of people, the latest being the March 23rd Movement, or M23, composed of soldiers who mutinied from the DRC national army (FARDC).
The Mission has often pointed out the challenge of performing its protection mandate in face of its vast area of operation and lack of so-called "force multipliers" such as military helicopters. UAVs will allow much better coverage, says MONUSCO.
"With this kind of equipment, we should be able to combine information gathered in flight with information gathered on the ground by people," MONUSCO Force Commander General Santos Cruz said.
"One can observe the movements of the armed groups, movements of populations and can even see the arms carried by people on the ground, and it is also possible to see people in forested areas," he added, describing images that could be obtained at 3 kilometres in altitude.
Mr. Ladsous said that the deployment of the aircraft, authorized by the Security Council last spring, is still evolving, but is starting with two UAVs. The goal is to have the craft up around the clock and adequately cover all the terrain in the relevant DRC provinces.
He said that the UAVs might already have been having an effect. Although agreements were already in the works to end the M23 movement, the recent rise in the defections from the group could be due to the perception that the situation in the east was changing significantly, as demonstrated by the deployment of the machines.
"As always, there is an operational aspect and a dissuasive aspect," he said.