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Secretary-General Outlines Elements of Digital Transformation Strategy for Peacekeeping, at High-Level Security Council Debate

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SG/SM/20856
18 AUGUST 2021

Following is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the high-level Security Council open debate on “United Nations peacekeeping operations: technology and peacekeeping”, in New York today:

I thank the Government of India for convening today’s open debate on technology and peacekeeping.

Over recent decades, conflicts have become more intractable and protracted. Actors have multiplied and diversified. Tools of warfare are increasingly sophisticated. And the growing internationalization of civil wars has made their resolution even more complex.

The devastating effects of the climate crisis on the lands and resources of peoples around the world, combined with growing socioeconomic vulnerabilities, are converging with and fuelling conflicts, causing further suffering. These shifts in conflict are accompanied by a broader societal transformation propelled by new technology. Digital technology, in particular, represents one of the greatest opportunities, but also one of the greatest challenges, of our time.

As I stress in my Road Map for Digital Cooperation, the international community must come together better to govern the digital space for good, while addressing its many challenges. The good is plain to see. Digital technologies play a central role in connecting communities, advancing health care and education, and enabling mobilization and change.

Digital technologies have allowed parts of the global economy and communities connected to the Internet to continue functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, in the realm of peacekeeping, tools reliant on digital technologies, such as long-range cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, and ground surveillance radars, help peacekeepers protect civilians and themselves.

New technologies have great potential, if managed responsibly, to enable safer, harm-free, and more effective operations. But new technologies also pose unfamiliar and profound threats, as seen most clearly in the online proliferation of violent extremist ideologies, increasingly prevalent cyberattacks, and deadly vaccine misinformation.

Emerging technologies are also blurring the lines between war and peace. States and non-State actors are carrying out malicious acts that fall below commonly understood thresholds for the use of force yet may still have devastating impact. Anonymous actors are able to target critical infrastructure such as power stations, hospitals, government facilities and the IT systems crucial to running our societies. The clandestine use of these technologies risks unintended escalation, including full-blown conflict.

Technological advances are also modifying the ways in which conventional weapons are being used. More accurate long-range rockets and missiles are allowing both States and non-State armed groups to carry out targeted strikes at great distances, including against populated areas. We are also seeing the increased use of autonomous weapon systems.

On this rapidly emerging issue, Governments must work together to ensure that sufficient human control and judgment is retained in the use of force. In short, new technologies are changing the scale and speed of attack, as well as the character and nature of violence and destruction in war, with an indelible impact on civilian populations. These developments create new and urgent challenges for peace operations, which are experiencing these challenges first-hand.

The United Nations has adapted and innovated throughout its 75 years. The concept of peacekeeping is itself the product of the art of the possible. But United Nations peacekeeping was conceived in an analogue world. It is now essential that it fully embraces the digital world in which we live, to improve the UN’s agility, anticipation and responsiveness to conflicts, and to be able to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

A shift in peacekeeping culture, as well as a systemic change, are required for this to happen. That is why we have developed a strategy for the digital transformation of United Nations peacekeeping operations.

The strategy seeks to use the opportunities offered by digital technologies to peacekeeping missions to mitigate the risks they pose and promote their responsible use. The strategy takes forward the vision for my second term — a renewed United Nations that is nimble, dynamic and evolving to anticipate and address complex issues.

Digital transformation in peacekeeping will contribute to one of the central objectives of Action for Peacekeeping Plus — to further data-driven and technology-enabled peacekeeping. It will be one of the most complex undertakings for United Nations peacekeeping in the coming years. But the need is critical, and the benefits will be profound.

The Digital Transformation Strategy for UN Peacekeeping focuses on four objectives.

First, we must drive technology innovation at Headquarters and in the field.

Second, we must maximize the potential of current and new technologies to augment the capacity of missions to carry out their mandates effectively. This includes transforming information-gathering and early-warning capacities to better protect civilians. It is essential that troop and police contributors in front-line roles have access to the most up-to-date technology.

Third, peace operations should be able to detect, analyse and address threats against civilians, peacekeepers and humanitarian and political missions in a timely and integrated manner.

Fourth, we must ensure the responsible use of digital technologies by peace operations by developing clear principles and undertaking human rights due diligence wherever there is a potential for harm.

The digital transformation is already permeating our peacekeeping operations. The Unite Aware platform promises an integrated approach to situational awareness that could be used across civilian, military and police components.

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is using machine learning to analyse radio data to detect hate speech, serving as an automated early-warning system for unrest.

A social media monitoring tool used by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) relies on artificial intelligence to identify perceptions of the Mission to improve service.

And the Smart Camp initiative will allow for more integrated, efficient, and greener peace operations.

But, to achieve the vision of the Digital Transformation Strategy over the coming three years, we need active engagement and support of Member States. We are looking for assistance in capacity-building and training, equipment provision and financial contributions.

The upcoming Peacekeeping Ministerial Meeting in the Republic of Korea can further the digital transformation process. The “Partnership for Technology in Peacekeeping” initiative provides another opportunity.

Ultimately, bringing about culture change and transformation that will have a real impact on the ground will require engagement not only from State actors, but also civil society, the technology sector and academia.

Together, we can rise to the challenge of the digital transformation of United Nations peacekeeping.

I thank you for your engagement and support.