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U.N. Peacekeeping Behind The Curve Technologically, Experts Say


We're going to hear next about a debate unfolding over the use of drones in peacekeeping missions. U.N. peacekeeping is, in the words of one Obama administration official, a growth industry. There are more peacekeepers serving around the world than ever before. They've been given tougher mandates. They work in dangerous environments, and some experts warn they're also way behind the curve when it comes to technology. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When the U.N. mission in Mali came under attack this month and a key peacekeeper was killed, officials began to wonder whether the team on the ground would have been able to prevent the attack had they had drones in the air and fair warning that their base was about to come under fire. The need for more drones is just one of the topics in a recent report by a group of experts led by a former top U.N. and U.S. official, Jane Holl Lute.

JANE HOLL LUTE: Drone technology is available in a number of countries around the world. It's really proliferating and it's miniaturizing. Costs are going down and capacity's going up, so this is something that, in our report, we call on member states to empower missions with, and we call on all member states to do that.

KELEMEN: This worries some countries who question how the U.N. would use drones and satellite imagery and whether the U.N. would become more of an intelligence gathering body.

LUTE: We take on this mythology that somehow giving this kind of capacity to a mission violates its impartiality. And what we say doesn't inviolate its impartiality, it empowers it to do precisely what the Security Council asked permission to do in the first place.

KELEMEN: U.N. peacekeepers already use drones in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken says there have been some successes there.


TONY BLINKEN: When the UAV detected a ferry accident on Lake Kivu last year, peacekeepers immediately deployed their speed boats and helicopters to the scene and were able to save 15 lives.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is by far the biggest donor to U.N. peacekeeping, covering more than 28 percent of the cost. And in his recent speech to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Blinken reminded the audience of some of the other problems facing peacekeepers - a shortage of troops in places like South Sudan, or poor leadership and planning in other places.


BLINKEN: Today, unfortunately, those involved in peace operations are in a growth industry. The demand for their services is at an all-time high. Nearly 130,000 brave men and women carry out 16 missions worldwide, by far the most peacekeepers that have ever been active in history.

KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. was in Brussels this month trying to drum up more contributions from Europe. Lute, the chair of the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation, says countries that don't want to send troops or police units should think about providing U.N. peacekeepers with better technology.

LUTE: Instantaneous access to information, to communications, to each other, particularly in crisis situations, is one of the assets that technology has brought to our lives. We need to bring that to peacekeeping.

KELEMEN: She says peacekeepers need the kind of technology that most militaries and police forces already take for granted. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.