UN urged to replace peacekeepers with drones in fragile Ivory Coast

Push for greater use of unmanned military aircraft after forces leave sub-Saharan Africa

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 4:28am


Peacekeepers in Ivory Coast could be replaced by drones in a further step towards greater use of the unmanned military aircraft in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ivory Coast, whose security situation is described as "fragile" after a decade of turmoil that culminated in a brief civil war in 2011, has asked the UN to consider deploying the unmanned aerial systems when its peacekeeping forces are reduced later this year.

"The use of drones would enhance the monitoring capacity of the UN mission in Ivory Coast, especially its surveillance and information gathering," said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, spokesperson for the UN Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI).

"This would help us to cope better with the difficulty we face in the west of the country and the heavily forested border area with Liberia which is very difficult to monitor and an ideal sanctuary for armed men."

The request was made by the UN envoy Youssoufou Bamba before planned cuts to Ivory Coast's current 9,500 peacekeeping force to around 8,000 in July, with further reductions in 2015.

But there are ongoing concerns about the security situation in the country - the world's largest cocoa producer and once a major economic powerhouse for the west Africa sub-region.

"Ivory Coast still faces serious threats that need to be addressed to ensure lasting stability," wrote United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a recent report. "Disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants from both political camps, which remain crucial in resolving a serious threat against sustainable peace in the country, will be a challenge."

Ivory Coast - whose previous violence has culminated around disputed elections - will go to the polls in 2015. The former president Laurent Gbagbo is being held at the international criminal court in The Hague where he has been charged with four counts of crimes against humanity, with further indictments against other senior Ivorian figures expected in coming months.

"The peace process in Ivory Coast is still fragile, and this is a period of time with three elections that could be significant flashpoints - with Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ivory Coast all going to the polls in 2015," said Alex Vines, Africa programme head at London think tank, Chatham House. "Is this really the time to be significantly reducing UN peacekeeping operations?"

"Drones are only as good as the ability to act on the intelligence that they then obtain," Vines added. "Whether a drone monitoring the west of Ivory Coast will be effective without significant numbers of boots on the ground has to be questioned."

The use of unmanned surveillance drones as part of peacekeeping operations is controversial. In January the security council in effect agreed to the deployment of drones for the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo after a nine-month insurgency by M23 rebels in the mineral-rich eastern DRC attracted renewed attention to the conflict in the country.

The move in the DRC - which already has the world's biggest peacekeeping operation, with more than 17,000 troops - follows years of resistance to the proposal, which is still opposed by neighbouring Rwanda.

The UNOCI said it would be closely watching events in the DRC to assess the viability of using drones in Ivory Coast.

"We are looking at the experience of drones by the UN peacekeeping operation in DRC, to see the outcome and learn lessons from that," said Van den Wildenberg.