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09 Oct 2019
The Battle For Peacetech: An UNTIL Interview with Dr. Walter Dorn, Royal Military College of Canada
The Battle For Peacetech: An UNTIL Interview with Dr. Walter Dorn, Royal Military College of Canada

The international security environment has changed dramatically since UN Peacekeeping was created in 1948 with the international order under threat from new tensions. The UN's Peacekeeping Operations are at the forefront of efforts to manage conflicts, operating in 14 countries, with over 110,000 uniformed and civilian staff.  But are they prepared for today's challenges and are they equipped with the technological tools to carry out their mandates?

To answer these and other questions we turned to Dr. Walter Dorn, a professor of Defense Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. The author of three books and numerous articles related to peace and security, in 2018 Professor Dorn was also appointed by the UN to be the organization's Innovation and Protection Technology Expert.

UNTIL: How is the UN doing in the area of adapting technology for peacekeeping? Are peacekeepers equipped with the kind of technologies other modern forces possess?


WALTER DORN: While militaries all over the world are keenly aware of the importance of technology, many simply cannot afford advanced technology.  Over two-thirds of nations contributing to UN peacekeeping forces are from the developing world, where modern technology is not prevalent. When these nations contribute to UN operations, they don’t have modern technology to bring with them. And Western countries have not been doing their part in peacekeeping over the past two decades, though there are encouraging signs of renewed engagement, e.g., in the Mali mission with advanced technology.  Moreover, the UN Secretariat has not been given enough resources or funds to incorporate advanced technology into field missions. All that being said, the UN has made tremendous progress – more in the past five years than the previous twenty-five, in deploying new technologies to its field missions.

UNTIL: Where does UN Peacekeeping stand vis a vis adopting new tech tools?


WALTER DORN: In 2013, the UN incorporated its first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into peacekeeping.  Now there are over 100 of all types and sizes. Over the past decade, the UN as a whole has become much more aware of the need for modern technological tools as key enablers. In 2014, the UN created a panel of experts on innovation and technology in UN peace operations, a panel on which I was fortunate to serve.  Our report, released in 2015, was quite progressive and the recommendations were formally accepted by the UN, though implementation is still far from complete.


UNTIL: We often think of tech as a big expenditure, but are there cost-effective tech tools the UN could rapidly deploy that would substantially change its effectiveness?


WALTER DORN: Yes, there are inexpensive low-hanging fruits. One example I like to use is motion-activated illuminators, like the ones many people have in their gardens.  These can be solar powered and purchased for under US$15 each.  The UN could place these in hot spots to immediately increase security at night. Another example is mobile phones, for which so many apps (applications) could be developed for use in peacekeeping. It’s just a matter of developing, testing, piloting and improving the apps. There are examples such as UshahidiStandby Taskforce, or some of the tools PeaceGeeks has developed.


UNTIL: Can you give me a recent example from a Peacekeeping operation of how better tech tools might have made a difference?


WALTER DORN: So often peace operations are unaware of specific threats until it is too late to prevent them. Attacks in Mali on both peacekeepers and villagers could have been prevented had the UN foreseen the attacks far enough in advance. In some cases in Mali, the UN forces were able to place themselves between attackers and villages and thus prevent the imminent attacks. In Central African Republic, when warnings were ignored by a force moving to attack Bambari, the UN used armed helicopters with rockets to stop the advance in its tracks. Such success stories in peacekeeping need to be publicized.  The UN is not toothless, though the use of force has to be done with great sensitivity and skill. It also requires technology for added precision.


UNTIL: What are some of the most promising technological tools for Peacekeeping on the horizon?


WALTER DORN: The UN is making good progress on improving situational awareness though the UniteAware initiative.  It is bringing together event reporting with GPS tracking technology into a common database. And there is so much more information that could be added to make a mission more capable, effective and accountable. The means to access and analyze the information need to be improved, including through artificial intelligence.


UNTIL: There is a lot of talk about Mediation Tech or Peace Tech. Why are such tools effective and important?


WALTER DORN: Yes, these can also be quite useful.  For instance, when a mediator has better situational awareness and knows the strengths and weaknesses of the conflicting parties, s/he is better able to find acceptable solutions and settlements. Also, when the parties see that the UN is capable of robust verification, they will have confidence that a future agreement can be being properly verified and that violators will be properly identified.


UNTIL: How different would Peacekeeping be in five years if it adopts some of the tech recommendations in that the panel called for?


WALTER DORN: Peacekeeping could improve immensely with even some of the many modern tools.  The advancement of cameras and other sensors, as well as GPS, will allow a mission to practice “precision peacekeeping,” better able to put the right forces in the right spot at the right time, with better situational awareness. And with improved communications with the local population, e.g., by cell or smart phone, the UN missions can involve locals to a greater and greater degree in their own security.  I call it “protection through connection,” forming a “coalition of the connected,” so that peacekeepers are more in tune with local needs, threats and security measures.

UNTIL: Is it possible to quantify the benefits of improved tech for Peacekeeping Operations?

WALTER DORN: Some quantitative indicators are possible. For instance, replacing a 24/7 manned observation post in a relatively quiet area with a camera system is typically one-tenth the cost and allow those soldiers to be used in a more mobile fashion in more important hot spots. By combing increased awareness with increased mobility the UN can be a more responsive organization, better able and enabled to do its job of maintaining peace and security.  

Secretary General

"The advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including those brought on by a combination of computing power, robotics, big data and artificial intelligence, are generating revolutions in health care, transport and manufacturing.  
I am convinced that these new capacities can help us to lift millions of people out of poverty, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and enable developing countries to leap‑frog into a better future."

23 March 2018, New York