Harness Digital Technology to Protect Peacekeepers, Civilians, Security Council Urges, Adopting Presidential Statement
The Security Council today encouraged the United Nations to make greater use of the rapidly expanding array of new technologies — including digital technology — to make its peacekeeping missions more effective in some of the world’s most complex political and security environments, as it held a ministerial-level open debate on the topic.
In a presidential statement (document S/PRST/2021/17) presented by India, Council President for August, the 15-member organ recognized that technology has the potential to act as a force multiplier by enhancing performance, saving resources, simplifying work processes and allowing peacekeeping missions to better understand the environments in which they operate. Emerging technologies can also support the safety and security of both peacekeepers and civilians by enabling early warning and response systems.
With peacekeepers facing asymmetrical and complex threats, including those posed by terrorist groups, technological tools must be leveraged to support greater situational awareness, the Council added. It encouraged troop- and police-contributing countries and field missions to support technologies which are driven by the practical needs of end users on the ground and in ways consistent with international human rights law.
Through the statement, the Council also took note of the Secretary-General’s ongoing efforts at the intersection of technology and peacekeeping, including the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative and the UNITE AWARE situational awareness platform, and welcomed Member States’ commitment to environmentally responsible solutions for United Nations peacekeeping operations, such as their increased use of renewable energy. It further encouraged the Secretary-General to keep working with Member States to explore technologies and best practices which can help improve the safety and security of peacekeepers and the protection of civilians, with a focus on solutions that are cost-effective and mission appropriate.
The presidential statement’s adoption and open debate came on the heels of the Council’s unanimous adoption of resolution 2589 (2021), through which members called upon Member States hosting or having hosted United Nations peacekeeping operations to take all appropriate measures to protect United Nations personnel. It also requested the Secretary-General to establish a comprehensive online database of attacks against peacekeepers. (See Press Release SC/14606.)
Opening the debate, Secretary-General António Guterres said the United Nations has adapted and innovated throughout its 75-year history. However, its peacekeeping architecture was conceived in an “analogue world” and the time has come for a shift in peacekeeping culture. “It is now essential that [peacekeeping] fully embraces the digital world in which we live, to improve the United Nations agility, anticipation and responsiveness to conflict, and to be able to address the challenges of today and tomorrow,” he said.
Outlining the core elements of his newly released Digital Transformation Strategy for United Nations Peacekeeping, which aims to embrace the opportunities offered by digital technologies, he went on to list several examples where peacekeeping missions are already deploying new technologies. They are being used to augment situational awareness in the Central African Republic, detect hate speech in Mali and monitor social media in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Calling for support in capacity-building, training, equipment provision and financial contributions to achieve the strategy’s vision, he added that the United Nations Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference to be held in December in Seoul, Republic of Korea, is another opportunity to further the digital transformation process.
In the ensuing debate, ministers and representatives welcomed the new Digital Transformation Strategy and echoed the Secretary-General’s call for the deployment of leading-edge technology in the field. Several speakers proposed greater use of renewable energy to reduce the environmental footprint of peacekeeping operations in an era of climate change. Some raised concerns over privacy, while others emphasized that the use of any technology must respect international law, human rights and the sovereignty of countries hosting peacekeeping missions.
S. Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs of India and Council President for August, said in his national capacity that twenty-first century peacekeeping must be anchored in a strong ecosystem of technology and innovation that can help missions adapt to changing conflict dynamics and take advantage of increased efficiencies. United Nations peacekeeping “simply cannot afford to cede the information advantage to those actors determined to undermine prospects for peace by using modern technology to aid their violent cause”, he stressed. Instead, the Organization should focus on operationally proven, cost-effective, widely available, reliable and field-serviceable technologies which also prioritize mobility and are environmentally friendly.
Eva-Maria Liimets, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, welcomed the fact that modern technologies are increasingly being integrated into United Nations peacekeeping operations. She cautioned, however, that political, legal and financial frameworks must be put into place to enable the effective use of knowledge. She added that peacekeeping operations should not only employ the best technologies available, but also keep abreast of new technologies as they emerge.
Niger’s representative said the use of technology for peacekeeping is “absolutely indispensable” as a performance multiplier, particularly given constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, peacekeepers must be provided with the technology they need, given how hostile forces are using sophisticated equipment for their own ends. “We must no longer delay, since we cannot win today’s battles using yesterday’s tools,” he stressed.
The representative of Kenya said that troop- and police-contributing countries should be encouraged to deploy with essential technological equipment, for which the United Nations should be ready to reimburse. Information collected through modern technology must only be used to protect the United Nations mandate, personnel and installations, and civilians of the host nation, he said, adding: “This Council should emphasize responsible use of technology by avoiding unnecessary deployments and strict adherence to the principles of impartiality and neutrality.”
Norway’s delegate joined other speakers in stressing that discussions on the use of technology must be integrated into all aspects of the peacekeeping planning process. In that regard, she highlighted the need to engage in partnership and cooperation — not only within the Organization and between Members States, but also with those who develop new technologies, such as think tanks, the private sector, academia and non-governmental organizations.
The representative of China, noting that his country the largest troop-contributor among the Council’s five permanent members, emphasized that the use of new technology should respect the sovereignty and will of host countries and avoid interfering in internal affairs or harming national, public and information security. Troop- and police-contributing countries should provide timely reimbursement for equipment and personnel and more tailored trainings to peacekeepers, he said, pointing out that China has funded various projects to build “smart camps” and strengthening data-sharing, aimed at improving the safety of peacekeeping camps and enhancing the capacity of peacekeeping operations.
Also speaking today were representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Viet Nam, Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Russian Federation, Mexico and Ireland. The delegations of several non-Council members also contributed written statements to the debate.
The meeting began at 10:12 a.m. and ended at 11:45 a.m.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said digital technology represents both one of the greatest opportunities and challenges of our time. The international community must therefore come together to better manage the use of digital technology for good purposes. In the realm of peacekeeping, for example, new technologies — such as long-range cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and ground surveillance radar — have great potential, if managed responsibly, to help peacekeepers safe and protect civilians. However, new technologies can also pose unfamiliar and profound threats, including the online proliferation of violent extremist ideologies and increasingly prevalent cyberattacks. Emerging technologies are also blurring the lines between war and peace, with their clandestine use liable to trigger unintended escalations leading to a full-blown conflict.
Throughout its history, he said, the United Nations has adapted and innovated. However, its peacekeeping architecture was conceived in an “analogue world”. “It is now essential that it fully embraces the digital world in which we live, to improve the United Nations agility, anticipation and responsiveness to conflict, and to be able to address the challenges of today and tomorrow,” he said, calling for a shift in peacekeeping culture and the systemic change needed to facilitate it. In that context, the Organization has developed the Digital Transformation Strategy for United Nations Peacekeeping, aimed at embracing the opportunities offered by digital technologies, to mitigate the risks they pose and to promote their responsible use. While it will be among the most complex undertakings for United Nations peacekeeping in the coming years, he emphasized that “the need is critical and the benefits profound”.
Outlining the strategy’s objectives, he said it aims to drive technology and innovation at Headquarters and in the field; maximize the potential of current and new technologies to augment the capacity of missions to carry out their mandates effectively; detect, analyse and address threats against civilians, peacekeepers and humanitarian and political missions in a timely and integrated manner; and ensure the responsible use of digital technologies by peace operations, by developing clear principles and undertaking human rights due diligence.
He listed several examples where missions are already deploying new technologies, citing the UNITE AWARE platform’s use by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA); the use of machine learning to detect hate speech by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA); and the deployment of artificial intelligence to monitor social media by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), aimed at identifying public perceptions of its work. Achieving the new strategy’s vision over the next three years will require the active engagement and support of Member States, he said, adding that the Organization is looking for help in capacity-building and training, equipment provision and financial contributions. The upcoming Peacekeeping Ministerial Meeting in the Republic of Korea can help further the digital transformation process, he added, also calling for engagement from civil society, the technology sector and academia.
S. JAISHANKAR, Minister for External Affairs of India, Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, saying that twenty-first century peacekeeping must be anchored in a strong ecosystem of technology and innovation that can help missions adapt to changing conflict dynamics and take advantage of increased efficiencies. Noting that peacekeepers are facing more and more asymmetric threats, he emphasized that United Nations peacekeeping “simply cannot afford to cede the information advantage to those actors determined to undermine prospects for peace by using modern technology to aid their violent cause”. The Organization should focus on operationally proven, cost-effective, widely available, reliable and field-serviceable technologies which also prioritize mobility and are environmentally friendly. Moreover, peacekeeping missions require a sound information and intelligence foundation to ensure early warning and response to critical situations. In that regard, India is supporting the rollout of the UNITE AWARE Platform across select peacekeeping missions. “We should ensure that any attack on a peacekeeper or a civilian is predictable, preventable or responded to immediately,” he stressed.
Member States must ensure that technological improvements are continuous and available on the ground, he continued. That includes strengthening communications within missions and enhancing their capacity to take informed decisions at the tactical and operational level. Attention and investment must also be given to consistent training and capacity-building of peacekeepers in the realm of technology. To that end, India has signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations to support the Partnership for Technology in Peacekeeping initiative and the UNC4ISR Academy for Peace Operations in Entebbe, Uganda. However, political will, strengthened partnerships and shifts in organizational culture are also required to advance the deployment of peacekeeping technology. Maximum transparency should remain a principle of its use, particularly regarding the gathering and sharing of information. Peacekeeping also needs continuous review, adaptation and transparent engagement with all stakeholders, as well as strong procedural safeguards and effective oversight mechanisms, he added.
EVA-MARIA LIIMETS, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, welcomed that modern technologies are increasingly being integrated into United Nations peacekeeping operations in order to enhance their performance and the safety of personnel. “Peacekeeping cannot get behind” these technologies, she stressed, outlining practical steps to better use technological innovations. First, it is critical to become better at tapping collective knowledge, she said, commending the Secretary-General’s UNITE AWARE platform and encouraging further cooperation in that area. Second, it is crucial to ensure that political, legal and financial frameworks are in place to enable the effective use of knowledge. In that regard, she joined others in welcoming the new United Nations Strategy for the Digital Transformation of Peacekeeping. Third, United Nations peacekeeping should employ the best technologies available, she said, adding that it must keep up with evolving technologies and expressing her full support for responsible use of such tools.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States) said peacekeepers working day and night in complex environments deserve the most cutting-edge tools, as the right technology can help them stay safe and protect the communities they serve. Stressing the importance of appropriate use, she welcomed that the upcoming ministerial-level peacekeeping conference in the Republic of Korea will address the need for missions to enhance their medical capabilities using technology, adding that the United States will engage further in that arena. Noting that United Nations peacekeeping missions heavily rely on diesel fuels — accounting for most of their global-warming gas emissions — she said the time has come to “disrupt” that reliance on diesel. She went on to stress that innovation and technology must be used responsibly, stressing that unmanned aerial vehicles are promising but their use must be fully in line with United Nations doctrines and policy as well as international humanitarian and human rights law. Technology can enhance security, but it can be used as a weapon for harm, she stressed, adding: “It can take lives or save lives.”
TAREK LADEB (Tunisia) called for a new approach to United Nations peacekeeping operations, primarily through the use of modern technology, to confront the increasing number of traditional and emerging challenges around the globe. He put forward several examples in that regard, including: developing artificial intelligence applications to analyze conflict data; adopting satellite mapping technology to identify the locations and needs of internally displaced persons and refugees; documenting human rights abuses; monitoring the movements of conflict parties; and observing arms smuggling networks. He echoed calls to enable United Nations missions to use modern technologies to enhance the safety of peacekeeping personnel, such as through the detection of improvised explosive devices and combating misinformation, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the risks posed by terrorist groups. He went on to voice support for the Secretary-General’s “Action for Peacekeeping” (A4P) initiative, while noting that parties seeking to undermine international peace and security, such as terrorist groups, rely heavily on technology in their destructive activities, funding, propaganda and recruitment.
DAI BING (China) welcomed the presidential statement adopted by the Council and emphasized that the use of new technologies must focus on improving the safety of peacekeeping personnel, in particular to reduce and prevent the threats caused by improvised explosive devices. Further, the use of new technology should respect the sovereignty and will of host countries and avoid interfering in internal affairs or harming national, public and information security. Calling on all States to pay their peacekeeping contributions on time and in full, he added that troop- and police-contributing countries should provide timely reimbursement for equipment and personnel and more tailored trainings to peacekeepers. Noting that China is the largest troop-contributing country among the Council’s five permanent members, he pointed out that the China-United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund has carried out projects to build “smart camps” and strengthen data-sharing, aimed at improving the safety of peacekeeping camps and enhancing the capacity of peacekeeping operations.
MARTIN KIMANI (Kenya) outlined his country’s long history with peacekeeping, noting that while modern technology has become an indispensable tool, terrorist and criminal groups are also increasingly using drones and artificial intelligence in their attacks and employing Internet-based platforms to disseminate information that endangers peacekeepers and civilians alike. Welcoming the launch of the “UNITE AWARE” platform aimed at enhancing situational awareness, he pressed the Council to ensure that approved personnel strength and equipment includes the requisite technological enablers with corresponding budget provisions. Troop- and police-contributing countries should be encouraged to deploy with essential technological equipment, for which the United Nations should be ready to reimburse, he said, calling also for standards to be set and respected by all missions. Information collected through modern technology must only be used to protect the United Nations mandate, personnel and installations, and civilians of the host nation. “This Council should emphasize responsible use of technology by avoiding unnecessary deployments and strict adherence to the principles of impartiality and neutrality,” he stressed, adding that peacekeepers must be properly trained in the physical, moral and conceptual foundations of conflict in the environments in which they operate.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom) expressed regret that peacekeepers sadly pay the ultimate price in maintaining international peace and security, noting that 83 peacekeeping staff have lost their lives in the line of duty in 2021. Technology can help better protect mission personnel and empower them to deliver their mandates more effectively. The United Kingdom is a proud partner of India on the UNITE Aware platform, deployed by United Nations peacekeeping. Among other things, the tool helped the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) with intelligence gathering, leading to a seizure of weapons from terrorists. However, technology is only one part of the equation, he said, stressing that personnel must be trained to use it. In that context, the United Kingdom also provides training on such issues as countering improvised explosive devices. In addition, he noted, it is time to seek alternative energy sources for peacekeeping operation, such as solar power to help mitigate climate change.
NIANDOU AOUGI (Niger) said the use of technology for peacekeeping is “absolutely indispensable” as a performance multiplier, particularly given constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, blue helmets must be provided with the technology they need, given the manner in which hostile forces are using sophisticated equipment for their own ends. “We must no longer delay, since we cannot win today’s battles using yesterday’s tools,” he stressed. Niger strongly encourages the use of technology by peacekeeping operations that will facilitate the accomplishment of mandates, improve performance and facilitate the safety and security of both peacekeepers and civilians. He also underscored the potential for new technologies to help close the gap between mandates and capacities by compensating for the lack of adequate resources often faced by peace operations. He stressed, however, that such improvements must respect international law and the private lives of local people through clearly defined rules aimed at avoiding any missteps.
NATHALIE BROADHURST ESTIVAL (France), condemning the recent attacks against peacekeepers by armed groups in Mali, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, warned that the attackers’ methods are evolving with the increasing use of improvised explosive devices and mines. Therefore, peacekeeping must adapt its own tools. For missions, the potential offered by technologies is threefold: Strengthening the protection of civilians; supporting mission performance; and contributing to the protection of peacekeepers. The use of technology must be adapted to the needs in the field. Citing the UNITE AWARE platform as an example, she said such tools allow peacekeepers to stay informed of developments on the ground in real time. Drones, intelligent rocket detection systems and tools to protect against cyberattacks can all improve mission capacities. Meanwhile, she said, mastery of new technologies requires prior and appropriate training for peacekeepers, which is a primary responsibility of the troop-contributing countries.
DINH QUY DANG (Viet Nam) said peacekeepers face greater challenges today and need technology to effectively carry out their duties. Pointing to the great potential of technology as an “enabler” to improve the safety and security of peacekeepers and their performance, he said the use of technology must be driven by practical needs. Despite possible risks, such as misinformation and the abuse of data, the United Nations and its Member States should not shy away from harnessing the great potential technology can offer. Stressing the importance of capacity-building and training, he reaffirmed his delegation’s support for enhancing the use of technology in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
ODD INGE KVALHEIM (Norway), noting that strengthening the capacity to protect civilians is a key priority for her country, pledged to provide funding to projects undertaken by the Department of Peace Operations, including the SAGE database and the UNITE AWARE platform. However, one cannot simply assume that active use of digital and other technologies will change everything for the better. Norway therefore welcomes the guiding principles of the Digital Transformation Strategy, which include “do-no-harm”, “inclusion and transparency”, and “sustainability and scalability”. The digital dignity of affected people must be preserved by protecting their personal data. Going forward, discussions on the use of technology must be integrated into all aspects of the peacekeeping planning process, she said, stressing the need to engage in partnership and cooperation — not only within the Organization and between Members States, but also with those who develop new technologies, such as think tanks, the private sector, academia and non-governmental organizations.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said innovative technologies should be made widely available to each peacekeeping operation. Troop- and police-contributing countries, Member States and the Secretariat must work closely together to provide each mission with adequate resources and clear, focused and actionable mandates. Modern technologies for detecting, managing and disposing of explosive ordnance should be, whenever possible, transferred to host countries left grappling with the residual risks of improvised explosive devices and other remnants of war. Meanwhile, peacekeepers must be provided with COVID-19 vaccines to protect them and the host communities in which they are deployed. She also welcomed the growing use of renewable energy in United Nations peacekeeping missions, stressing that they improve climate compliance, enhance mission efficiency and bolster the safety and security of United Nations personnel.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) welcomed the adoption of resolution 2589 (2021) earlier in the day, saying that crimes against peacekeepers must be investigated and those responsible punished. That will require host countries, troop-contributing countries and the Secretariat to work in harmony, good faith and transparency. Supplying peacekeeping missions with new technologies is an important subject that Member States must discuss with a view to developing common approaches, and the Secretariat should monitor those discussions closely. Meanwhile, the use of new technologies must be aimed at ensuring the safety and security of peacekeepers and civilians and should pose no threat to host countries, neighbouring States or civilian privacy. Going forward, peacekeeping operations will remain an effective instrument for conflict resolution and for State-building in initial post-conflict situations. Their mandates, however, should not be inflated to the detriment of host countries. Effective peacekeeping depends not only on technology, gender representation or the deployment of advisers, but on supporting political efforts to end conflict, he said, describing the latter as the “alpha and omega” of determining the United Nations performance.
ALICIA GUADALUPE BUENROSTRO MASSIEU (Mexico) urged the Department of Peace Operations and the Department of Operational Support to step up dialogue with Member States to identify challenges and opportunities in bolstering the United Nations technological capacity to respond to crises. Looking forward to the ministerial-level summit on peacekeeping, taking place in Seoul in December, she called for peace operations to be endowed with new technology that would enable them to provide timely medical assistance. The use of social networks can strengthen relations between peacekeeping missions and the communities in which they operate. Ongoing training and capacity-building are crucial for security of peace personnel, she added, noting Mexico’s use of simulators which can recreate situations which peacekeepers might face. She went on to urge United Nations system entities to continue dialogue and cooperation, thus contributing to a digital transformation of peacekeeping that can strengthen multilateralism.
GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland) said addressing the evolving range of peacekeeping risks requires that the safety of peacekeepers be considered throughout the mission cycle — from inception to transition. In such efforts, the manner in which new technologies are harnessed and managed will be crucial. Technology has the potential to offer peacekeepers greater situational awareness and improved data analysis, thereby improving the safety of missions while also increasing their effectiveness, she said, pointing to the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD) as a good example, and welcoming the new Strategy for the Digital Transformation of United Nations Peacekeeping. She went on to call for adequate mission resourcing and training designed to leverage the capabilities of technology, emphasizing that all troop-contributing countries must have equal access to self-protection technologies. “Our peacekeepers should not be playing catch-up when it comes to new technologies,” she cautioned, calling for an examination of how armed groups exploit information and technology access and underscoring the importance of effective export controls.