Côte d'Ivoire, whose security situation is described as "fragile" after a decade of turmoil that culminated in a brief civil war in 2011, has asked the United Nations to consider deploying the unmanned aerial systems when its peacekeeping forces are reduced later this year.
"The use of drones would enhance the monitoring capacity of the UN mission in Côte d'Ivoire, especially its surveillance and information gathering," said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, spokesperson for the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (Unoci).
"This would help us to cope better with the difficulty we face in the west of the country and the heavily forested border area with Liberia which is very difficult to monitor and an ideal sanctuary for armed men."
The request was made by the UN envoy Youssoufou Bamba before planned cuts to Côte d'Ivoire's current 9 500 peacekeeping force to around 8 000 take place in July, with further reductions in 2015.
But there are ongoing concerns about the security situation in the country – the world's largest cocoa producer and once a major economic powerhouse for the West Africa sub-region.
Côte d'Ivoire's 2015 polls
"Côte d'Ivoire still faces serious threats that need to be addressed to ensure lasting stability," wrote the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in a recent report. "Disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants from both political camps, which remain crucial in resolving a serious threat against sustainable peace in the country, will be a challenge.
Côte d'Ivoire – whose previous violence has culminated around disputed elections – will go to the polls in 2015. The former president Laurent Gbagbo is currently being held at the International Criminal Court in The Hague where he has been charged with four counts of crimes against humanity, with further indictments against other senior Ivorian figures expected in coming months.
"The peace process in Côte d'Ivoire is still fragile, and this is a period of time with three elections that could be significant flashpoints – with Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire all going to the polls in 2015," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House. "Is this really the time to be significantly reducing UN peacekeeping operations?"
"Drones are only as good as the ability to act on the intelligence that they then obtain," Vines added. "Whether a drone monitoring the west of Côte d'Ivoire will be effective without significant numbers of boots on the ground has to be questioned."
The use of unmanned surveillance drones as part of peacekeeping operations is controversial. In January the security council in effect agreed to the deployment drones for the first time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after a nine-month insurgency by M23 rebels in the mineral-rich eastern DRC attracted renewed attention to the conflict in the country. The move in the DRC – which already has the world's biggest peacekeeping operation, with more than 17 000 troops – follows years of resistance to the proposal, which is still opposed by neighbouring Rwanda.
Watching events in the DRC
The Unoci said it would be closely watching events in the DRC to assess the viability of using drones in Côte d'Ivoire.
"We are looking at the experience of drones by the UN peacekeeping operation in DRC, to see the outcome and learn lessons from that," said Van den Wildenberg.
The deployment of drones in Côte d'Ivoire would be expected to concentrate on the troubled border area with Liberia, where there have been outbursts of fighting and civilian deaths in recent months, but where experts say the security situation is now improving.
Côte d'Ivoire also shares poorly controlled borders with Guinea, which recently sent troops into the country in a dispute over border demarcations; Ghana, where a number of high-profile allies of Gbagbo have fled; and Mali, where an international military force is still fighting a war against al-Qaida-linked insurgents in the north. – © Guardian News and Media 2013