Smart Peacekeeping:
Toward Tech-Enabled UN Operations

A. Walter Dorn


Originally published as Providing for Peacekeeping No 13, International Peace Institute, New York, July 2016. (IPI webpage). Executive Summary provided here. For full report see pdf (1.4  MB).

Executive Summary

As the world’s technological revolution proceeds, the United Nations can benefit immensely from a plethora of technologies to assist its peace operations. Missing such opportunities means missing chances for peace, as has happened far too many times in the past when the United Nations was ill-equipped for difficult mandates. To be effective in the twenty-first century, the world organization needs not only to enhance its own technological capabilities but also to know about the increased technology of conflicting parties and civilians in war-torn areas. Cell phones, smart phones, GPS, and the Internet are increasingly available and are changing the nature of conflict, even in remote areas. If the United Nations remains ill-prepared and unaware, its operations will be victim to potential adversaries and peace-process spoilers, including attackers using remote-controlled improvised explosive devices. Greater technological awareness will help the United Nations avoid attacks and also work with potential partners, like regional organizations and friendly coalitions of varying technological capacity.

Fortunately, significant progress is being made. The United Nations adopted a strategy for technology and innovation for peacekeeping. More importantly, it is showing the will and the means to implement this strategy. Furthermore, the emergence of the technology-contributing country (TechCC) concept offers new possibilities to complement the traditional notion of the troop-contributing country (TCC) and police-contributing country (PCC). TechCCs can greatly assist not only the UN directly but also the developing world, which currently supplies the large majority of uniformed peacekeepers but whose militaries are more low-tech. The prolifera-tion of new technology, including in populations where UN peacekeepers are deployed, also allows the world organization to explore new options to create peace and stability.

UN missions can now reach out in new ways to local peoples because of the revolution in information technology, particularly using cell phones and smartphones. In such “participatory peace-keeping,” the UN’s security information can be partly crowd sourced by giving the locals a place to send their observations, alerts, and insights.  

Cooperative monitoring using inputs from the conflicting parties is also possible, where the levels of data sharing with the parties, from raw data to selected results, can be adjusted to meet the interests of peace. The United Nations can serve as an information gatekeeper for peace, building confidence while countering fear and scaremongering. This can allow the United Nations to turn the vicious spiral of conflict, which is based on misinformation and disinformation, into a virtuous cycle of conflict resolution based on validated information. Indeed, the UN’s power to protect depends on its power to connect. In an age when peace operations are mandated for the protection of civilians, it is essential to connect with them. Population-centric operations give peace a better chance, continuing even after the peace-keepers have left. The United Nations can help turn the fog of war into the clarity of peace, enabled by new technology.

Of course, innovation is not just about technology but about people and processes as well. Ideas must percolate continually. Research and development (R&D) needs to be carried out. Field testing and pilot projects complete the R&D cycle before procurement and deployment. The United Nations has very little experience in researching, developing, and testing new technologies, except in the area of information and communications technology (where it has developed a world-class capability). In all stages, TechCCs can help the United Nations considerably, both at headquarters and in the field.

The field workers of the United Nations risk their lives for peace. They remain the bedrock of international assistance in conflict areas. However, they must be able to “live, move, and work” effectively and safely. To do this, they have intensive information needs to “see, hear and think.” Ongoing technological advances can help immensely in each of these areas. An array of monitoring technologies can help create a “digital peacekeeper” with full access to the suite of sensors and information sources. However, human interactions with the local population remain essential, and human privacy must be respected. Various technologies can be explored to facilitate such interactions, as described herein.

This report provides: (1) an overview of technological possibilities, highlighting recent advances;  (2) specific examples of how some of these capabilities can be used in contemporary peace operations; (3) a framework for thinking about technology, based on the three imperatives to “live, move, and work” in the field; (4) a case study on police technologies; (5) a summary of progress to date; (6) an analysis of some key challenges; and (7) a set of practical recommendations.

The UN is now making the most concerted effort in its history to advance peacekeeping technology. The UN Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support (DPKO/DFS) created the Partnership for Technology in Peacekeeping in 2014 to facilitate work with a wide range of organi-zations, including member states, regional organi-zations, think tanks, and academic/scientific institutions. Fortunately, technology is getting much better, less expensive, and more user-friendly over time, making this initiative a winning proposition. But much more can be done.

The recommendations in this report include both general principles and specific applications. It proposes the following principles:

1. Seek the buy-in from host countries and local populations so locals support the technologies.

2. Use greater feedback and reach-back to UN headquarters and other international supporters, made easier as technology allows more information processing and support from further away in both directions.

3. Develop life-cycle equipment management, encouraging a systematic approach that maximizes technological potential.

4. Manage expectations so that some failures can be tolerated along the road to success and so innovation can flourish without unreasonable fears.

Beyond these general principles, many ideas for new activities and processes are proposed and explored:

1. At UN headquarters, develop a “solutions farm” and a “tech watch” with “tech scouts,” annual reviews (audits) of UN technology and innovation, technology selection criteria, cooperation with R&D institutes, and national testing and evaluation centers.

2. In the field, institute testing of new equipment, “proofs of concept” and pilot projects, demonstration kits, technology lessons-learned reporting, and special technological missions.

3. Engage TCCs and PCCs by incentivizing them to bring in effective modern equipment (through financial and other incentives), providing them training to foster technological expertise, and encouraging TechCCs to assist TCCs and PCCs.

4. Engage external actors and vendors by hosting a technology fair or “rodeo” and supporting a “hackathon” for smartphone and tablet app-developers on useful applications for peacekeeping.

After instituting a major technology upgrade, the United Nations will be much better equipped to handle the challenges of the twenty-first century. A new generation of smart technologies can make peacekeeping more effective. And when smart technology is finally and firmly integrated, the former critics will ask, “How could we have lived without it?”