Late last month a flurry of regional peace efforts led by Uganda, Rwanda under the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICLGR) pulled the DRC from the brink of a wider war by securing a ceasefire and preliminary peace talks, which saw the M-23 rebels withdraw from the city of Goma after claiming it in a lightning offensive which routed United Nations peacekeepers, the Congolese army and paramilitary police units.
With the M-23 threatening to occupy the whole country and march on Kinshasa to remove the regime of President Joseph Kabila unless it met their demands, the offensive proceeded to claim the town of Sake thirty kilometres further south. Peace efforts halted the advance and secured a withdrawal of the rebel army and its allies.
Following the M-23 offensive, which displaced thousands of people, the UN says it has reviewed its peacekeeping operations and plans to acquire unarmed drones for use in monitoring rebel groups and tribal militias in the North and South Kivu provinces and the borders between Rwanda and DRC. The UN has 17 500 troops from 50 countries deployed to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) but the force has so far proved largely incapable of protecting civilians and refugees from armed attacks.
Over the last few months, the UN force has fought a series of indecisive battles that failed to suppress the M-23 insurgency. Amid growing concerns that MONUSCO is failing in its combat, stabilisation and peacekeeping missions, the UN is pushing for radical reforms in the strategy of combating insurgency and protecting civilians in the eastern DRC.
UN peacekeeping operations spokesman Kieran Dwyer told the AFP news agency that peacekeeping diplomats have already met the Rwandan and Congolese governments to seek approval for the deployment of unarmed drones to sharpen the arsenal of the peacekeeping and combat capabilities of the force.
"The UN is considering a range of ways to strengthen the capabilities of MONUSCO to protect civilians from the threat of armed groups in the vast area of eastern DR Congo. Unarmed aerial vehicles, or drones, for monitoring the movements of armed groups, are one tool we are considering. Of course, we would do this carefully in full cooperation with the government of the DR Congo.” Dwyer said the drones would be used for information gathering to help implement the UN’s mandate to protect civilians. “Ultimately, to introduce these, we would need the support of member states to equip the mission," Dwyer said.
Rwanda's first counsellor for Rwanda's UN Mission in New York Olivier Nduhungirehe told news agencies that it will be hard to find consensus for the deployment of MONUSCO drones in the Great Lakes region. "This is controversial, not all countries agree with this." An unnamed UN security council diplomat also warned it will be hard to get the co-operation of divided regional neighbours.
"In Congo, the drones could spot any troops and weapons coming across the border, which is good. But there are a lot of countries with secrets to hide. If the drones are used in other missions, who will guard the information and guarantee that it does not get passed on?" the diplomat was quoted as saying. Suspicion and accusations over the backing of rebels in DR Congo between the Great Lakes powers is reported to be strangling the ongoing African Union regional effort, which also uses drones, to track down the fugitive Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony across the Central Africa Republic and the DRC.
The US, which has deployed at least 100 US Army counter-insurgency troops to assist the AU's hunt for Kony, has expressed concern that the lack of regional co-operation has made it harder to locate Kony. Analysts fear the use of drone in the DRC will suffer from the fate.
"While regional cooperation and coordination is important, it doesn't mean it always work well and it doesn't mean it is always successful. I think we have had some success, but not the success we need with the African Union Regional Task Force in the effort to bring Joseph Kony and senior leaders of the LRA to justice. But there are certainly frictions amongst the four primary countries that are engaged in this.
"We try to use our good offices and opportunities for dialogue with the four participants to try to work through those regional efforts. We've had a number of meetings with the African Union's special representative for LRA, Ambassador Madeira and we have met a number of times. We will meet again at a very senior level to try to focus on this problem," US Africa command chief General Carter Ham said in an interview with French TV station France 24.
As part of strengthening MONUSCO, the UN plans to deploy an additional 2 000 peacekeepers to boost its strength from 17 500 at present.