Walter Dorn

Originally published in the National Post, 26 September 2011


Even with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi driven from power, the future of Libya is far from assured. As NATO makes its departure, should the United Nations' famous blue helmets be invited to assist Libya in its long journey of political rebuilding? The UN Security Council established a United Nations Support Mission in Libya on Sept. 16, so there is clearly some expectation that the UN will have a role going forward. But is the organization equipped to take on the job?

Before accepting such a mission, countries contributing personnel should insist that they be given the proper tools to accomplish the task. The UN has been traditionally slow to adopt these technologies, and its peacekeeping forces lag far behind modern militaries — or even the cobbled-together rebel forces that overthrew Gaddafi. The "low-tech" or "no-tech" attitude of some UN officials could endanger the lives of the peacekeepers and the civilians that the UN forces are mandated to help protect.

For instance, in the Congo in 2008, more than 150 villagers were killed by rebels, while only a mile away 100 UN peacekeepers, confused or outright unaware about the situation in their immediate area, did nothing. UN commanders in the field are left with little option other than to tell villagers to "bang their pots and pans together" if they are being attacked.

But new, readily available technologies can transform how the UN carries out peacekeeping missions, making its personnel not only more effective, but safer. Here are some "bare necessities" that any UN mission in Libya shouldn't go without:

Smartphones: These devices, already a driving force behind organized protests, can also be of immense help in peacekeeping. Smartphones with inbuilt cameras and Internet connectivity could be used to alert peacekeepers and the wider population to threats. UN, NGO workers and others could make decisions with greater clarity and certainty thanks to vastly improved communications and situational awareness.

Ground Surveillance Radar (GSR): Peacekeepers using GSR can observe the movements of people to a distance of 10 km and vehicles to 15 km, day or night. This technology would be ideally suited for Libya's wide-open spaces.

Ground penetrating radar: Metal detectors can reach only a certain depth, whereas ground penetrating radar can go much deeper to find hidden bunkers and arms caches. As the extent of the horrors of the Gaddafi regime are being uncovered, such radar technology can also be useful in detecting hidden mass graves and collecting evidence of crimes against humanity.

Chemical "sniffers" for WMDs: Gaddafi's past chemical weapons programs have left dangerous substances that could be used in Libya or smuggled across the border. Sniffers can be used to warn of an attack or accidental release, and to secure borders to prevent smuggling until all stockpiles have been located and destroyed.

Night-vision equipment: Hostile groups often use the cover of darkness for their attacks and illegal activities. Peacekeepers need to overcome the "night barrier" and make 24-hour operations routine. This is possible thanks to the advancement of night-vision equipment, allowing troops to follow terrain on foot or drive vehicles at night while on the lookout for threats.

The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations has led missions of the kind required for Libya in places such as Cambodia, East Timor and Central America. In fact, the success of such missions has driven demand for the UN's expertise in nation-building, with more than 125,000 peacekeepers deployed in 15 missions worldwide. Even improperly equipped, peacekeeping has never before been in such high demand.

Rebuilding Libya is not a job for NATO. Large Western forces will not be welcome or advisable. But developed nations like Canada can technologically support a new peacekeeping mission — one that is properly equipped to get the job done.


Walter Dorn is a professor at the Canadian Forces College, and author of Keeping Watch: Monitoring, Technology, and Innovation in UN Peace Operations published this month by United Nations University Press.