The Security Council has approved the use of surveillance drones over eastern Congo to monitor roving militias so it can more effectively deploy U.N. peacekeepers.
A letter released Thursday from the president of the Security Council to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the council members note the robot spy planes will be used "on a case-by-case basis" and will not set a precedent for the U.N.'s general consideration of "legal, financial and technical implications of the use of unmanned aerial systems."
The letter from Pakistan U.N. Ambassador Masood Khan, who holds the rotating Security Council presidency, was released as a U.N. expert launched a special investigation into drone warfare and targeted killings, which the United States relies on as a front-line weapon in its global war against al-Qaida.
Civilian killings and injuries that result from drone strikes on suspected terrorist cells will be part of the focus of the investigation by British lawyer Ben Emmerson, the U.N. rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights. The U.N. said Emmerson will present his findings to the U.N. General Assembly later this year.
The U.N.'s spy drones over Congo would be unarmed.
Ban proposed in December that the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo be supplied with "intervention" troops, night-vision equipment, surveillance drones with cameras and enhanced river patrols.
The proposals are aimed at improving the protection of civilians from the threat of armed groups in Congo's vast mineral-rich eastern region, which has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
The Security Council wants to beef up the U.N. peacekeeping force known as MONUSCO, which has more than 17,700 U.N. peacekeepers and over 1,400 international police, following last year's takeover of many villages and towns in eastern Congo by M23 rebels who briefly held Goma before withdrawing in early December.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous had previously faced opposition from neighboring Rwanda, which is believed to be backing the M23, especially on the possible deployment of unarmed drones. Diplomats said Russia was among the other countries raising concerns about the use of drones.
The Rwandan government denies any support for the M23, which is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April, mainly from the Tutsi ethnic group that was targeted for extermination by Hutu militias during the Rwanda genocide. Since withdrawing from Goma, M23 has taken steps toward negotiating with the Congolese government.
Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were closed, said France, Britain, the U.S. and other Western countries back the deployment of drones and other advanced equipment in eastern Congo, saying it would enhance the ability of peacekeepers to track armed groups and help protect U.N. forces from ambushes.
U.N. officials say drones could also be useful in other African conflicts and possibly in the search in Central Africa for leaders and members of the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal gang of jungle militiamen headed by warlord Joseph Kony, who is accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.