Futuring Peace
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Futuring Peace

What role technology can play in ceasefire monitoring and verification

Illustration by Mario Wagner for UN DPPA

According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program data, there were over 50 armed conflicts ongoing in the world in 2020. Ceasefires play an important role in stopping armed violence and ending such conflicts to prevent human suffering. Not all ceasefire arrangements include monitoring and/or verification. Yet, these key components, consisting of observing and reporting on activities on the ground, help to ensure compliance with arrangements and enable investigations into incidents. Activities which can be subject to monitoring or verification include, the recruitment or training of (more) fighters, the spreading of hate speech or disinformation, or the use of the cyberspace to conduct attacks against critical infrastructure.

Traditionally, monitoring and verification has been human-led. But sometimes circumstances do not always allow people to be deployed on the ground to undertake these tasks. Sometimes, security conditions can be too dangerous, a ceasefire mission may simply not have enough personnel, or a global pandemic can impact the deployment of monitors. How could missions use technology to aid with or even conduct monitoring and verification tasks in such circumstances?

Ceasefire Monitoring in Kidal, Northern Mali (UN Photo/Blagoje Grujic)

Technology has already been used by ceasefire missions

The use of technology is not novel within ceasefire monitoring and verification. For example, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) has used cameras with motion sensors to monitor the buffer zone. Another example of technology use is by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) hich has used radars, aerostats and uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) to monitor physical activities and has also monitored radio transmissions to detect non-physical aggression, such as hate speech.

Member of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) Danish contingent in Ferret Scouts approaches an observation post near Skouriotissa (UN Photo/John Isaac)

Technology can provide a number of advantages…

The use of technology can provide several advantages to the ceasefire oversight mechanisms. For example, data acquisition technologies such as static cameras or those embedded in aerial platforms or satellites can help gather data objectively, remotely, and across large areas. Technology can also be used to undertake tasks that cannot easily be done by human monitors and remove some of the monitoring burden. This means that monitors can focus on other tasks, such as analysis or dialogue activities.

The use of technology by OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which operated between 2014 and 2022, was notably driven by the need to keep mission staff further removed from harm’s way. It was also influenced by the fact that the mission had to manage a very large geographic area using limited human resources. This mission for example used stationary cameras to monitor hotspots along the contact line, satellite imagery to monitor areas monitors did not have access to, and UAS to monitor weapon use.

An SMM monitoring officer flying an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) (OSCE/Athanasios Kaltsis)

…but are not without their limitations

Despite these advantages, technology is not a panacea for ceasefire monitoring and verification and it cannot replace humans entirely. First, each technology has its own limitations. For example, satellites can be hampered by cloud cover and, as they operate on a fixed orbit, they cannot provide constant monitoring of a particular area. Such limitations can be mitigated by having a good understanding of the capabilities of the various technologies, and thus when and how these can be best used in a specific context.

Second, technology can also vary in terms of its ability to assist with the monitoring and verification of the different types of activities covered by the terms of ceasefire agreements. For example, acoustic sensors can help identify the use of weapons, but have limited capabilities beyond this. For other activities, technology is not well suited at all, such as regarding the monitoring or verification of acts of sexual violence committed against civilians.

Finally, the use of technology can be limited by broader considerations that include, but are not limited to:

· acceptability of the technology by the conflict parties;

· the cost and resource demands of certain technologies; or

· the ability for the technology to respect ethical and privacy considerations and avoid unintended harm.

Overall, the use of technology for ceasefire monitoring and verification is not as straightforward as deciding to use a particular type of technology simply because it has worked well in the past, or because the technical limitations could be overcome.

Security Council Meets on Situation in Colombia (UN Photo/Manuel Elías)

How can technology be most effectively used in ceasefire monitoring and verification?

While certain technologies have been used in several ceasefire contexts, other relevant technologies have seen more limited or no use at all. This latter category includes seismic sensors, biometrics, solutions enabling reports by civilians on the ground, but also technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) allowing automated synthesis and analytical support of the data.

Novel data acquisition technologies could help gather not only more data for monitoring purposes, but also new types of information. This includes, for example, more knowledge regarding the harm to civilians. Technologies such as AI would also be able to provide more support to human analysts in terms of helping manage and make sense of the greater quantities of information that technology is able to collect. In future, use of new types of technologies may also be necessary to keep up with the changing dynamics of conflict, such as by helping monitor for cyberattacks.

Despite the existence of a range of technologies, it is nonetheless important to recognise that the human dimension cannot be removed from the use of technology — no matter the benefits technology might bring. While combining the strengths of both technology and humans can help balance out their respective limitations, it is also important to ensure that the decision to use specific technologies should consider the issue carefully; technology should be used when it can help achieve the ultimate goal of finding ways to end armed violence and move towards lasting peace.

About the author: Sarah Grand-Clément is a researcher in the Conventional Arms and Ammunition programme and the Security and Technology programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). She has authored the UNIDIR report on “Exploring the Use of Technology for Remote Ceasefire Monitoring and Verification”.

“Futuring Peace” is an online magazine published by the Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA). We explore cross-cutting approaches to conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding for a more peaceful future worldwide.

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