UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations outlined its case to the Security Council Tuesday to use surveillance drones in Congo for the first time but ran into opposition from neighboring Rwanda which is believed to be backing rebels who recently took control of many towns in the conflict-wracked east.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous asked the council to support the deployment of drones to help the more than 17,700 U.N. peacekeepers and over 1,400 international police in the vast country carry out their main mission of protecting civilians, U.N. diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Congolese army troops were unable to halt the M23 rebels who took control of many villages and towns in the mineral-rich east and briefly held the key eastern city of Goma before withdrawing in early December. The peacekeeping force — the largest of the U.N.'s 15 global operations — did little to protect the tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom fled their homes.
Brieuc Pont, the spokesman for France's U.N. Mission, tweeted that "the U.N. in Congo needs additional and modern assets, including drones, to be better informed and more reactive."
But Rwanda's U.N. Ambassador Eugene-Richard Gasana said his government and others have legitimate concerns about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, especially before an assessment from the U.N. Secretariat later this year on the legal, technical and financial implications of using UAVs.
"It might have a precedence on other countries," Gasana told several reporters after the meeting. "We owe them a kind of explanation. It is about human beings, it is not about 'Star Wars.' We need this new technology, but at which cost?"
Drones are being increasingly used in Western military operations but there are suspicions, especially in developing nations, that they will become a new intelligence-gathering tool for the West.
Rwanda raised its concern in the closed session that drone inspections would make the U.N. a belligerent force, which wouldn't contribute to the safety of U.N. peacekeepers, one diplomat said. Diplomats said Pakistan, where U.S. drones have been used against suspected terrorists, also voiced concerns about their use in Congo at the council meeting.
The diplomats said France, Britain, the U.S. and other Western countries back the deployment of drones in eastern Congo, saying it would enhance the ability of peacekeepers to track armed groups and help protect U.N. forces from ambushes. U.N. officials say drones could also be useful in other African conflicts and possibly in the search in Central Africa for leaders and members of the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal gang of jungle militiamen headed by warlord Joseph Kony which has been accused of carrying out massacres, mutilating victims and using children as soldiers and sex slaves.
Eastern Congo has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias before a Tutsi-led rebel army took power in Rwanda. More than 1 million Rwandan Hutus fled across the border into Congo, and Rwanda has invaded Congo to take action against Hutu militias there. The exploitation of Congo's mineral resources continues to exacerbate conflict and instability on the ground.
The M23 rebel group is made up of hundreds of mainly Tutsi soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. A U.N. group of experts reported in November that M23 is backed by Rwanda, which has provided them with battalions of fighters and sophisticated arms, like night vision goggles. Rwanda denies supporting and arming the rebel group.
Since withdrawing from Goma, M23 has taken steps toward negotiating with the Congolese government.