COVID-19: Osman Askin Bak on civil preparedness, resilience, and Alliance solidarity and unity to mitigate future outbreaks

17 July 2020

In its latest interview, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly caught up with Osman Askin Bak, NATO PA Vice-President and Head of the Turkish Delegation, who highlights Turkey’s contribution in the fight against the pandemic, the importance of close civil-military cooperation, and NATO’s significant role in combating COVID-19.

4 questions with Osman Askin Bak:

I.    Allied efforts to provide resources and humanitarian assistance to the hardest-hit countries has been critical to help Allies and partners cope with this unprecedented crisis. Could you tell us how Turkey has used NATO structures to help others and how Turkey has benefitted from other Allies’ help over the course of the crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again shown the importance of Alliance solidarity and unity. Especially in times of humanitarian crisis, Turkey and the Turkish people are always dedicated to solidarity and unity with their friends. Turkey has spent the most in the world on global humanitarian assistance when calculated as percentage of its GDP in the last two years. We may not be the richest country, but I am proud that we are definitely the most generous.

Even in these hard and challenging days, Turkey has been able to provide assistance to 125 countries since the beginning of the pandemic, including 21 Allies and 31 NATO partner countries as well as other friendly countries in need.

NATO has been playing a significant role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, in light of Article 3 of the Washington Treaty. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) has acted effectively as a clearing-house where countries in need submit requests for aid, and these requests are matched with offers of assistance from other countries.

In delivering our medical supplies, we are glad to be the first to use the Rapid Air Mobility (RAM) mechanism, through which a dedicated NATO call sign is used in coordination with EUROCONTROL for military relief flights, to facilitate flight plans and ensure quicker travel time. We used this mechanism in delivering medical supplies to the U.K. and the U.S. Having this mechanism has once again proven to us how essential our alliance is and which challenges we can overcome together.

II.    What additional steps should NATO and Allied armed forces take to support the national and international response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Civil preparedness is above all a national responsibility in NATO, but Alliance security relies on all Allies maintaining robust civil preparedness and resilience in line with Article 3 of the Washington Treaty. In this regard, the Alliance will have substantial further work on developing best practices and lessons learned, and introducing additional measures to enhance our resilience and civil preparedness will need to be discussed. 
The COVID-19 outbreak has also underlined the importance of close civil-military cooperation, contributing to national resilience, and disaster response. National military capabilities have reinforced the national civil response to COVID-19. National military forces provide medical services, including conducting research and development, setting up and operating testing centres, personal protection equipment, and providing transportation services (including medical evacuation) and logistics planning. 

NATO’s institutional capacity is well suited to provide an exemplary international response to the fight against this pandemic and similar disasters that may emerge in the future. Needless to say, we have to be better mobilised and increase awareness for the potential of NATO. 
As we move towards the recovery phase of the pandemic and prepare for a possible second wave, NATO must continue to stand ready to coordinate assistance to Allies and partners when needed. The Military Authorities are already tasked to address options to respond to a possible second wave. 
Establishing a stockpile of critical medical supplies and equipment by NATO will also be essential to support national responses if needed during a possible future second wave of COVID-19. 
Most important of all, during this unprecedented crisis, it is essential that all Allies remain united and display strong solidarity by all means possible.

III.    Turkey has aided many Allies, but it has also done much to support NATO partner countries. What tools does NATO have to help its partners and how could NATO develop these tools to help them in future health crises and other civil emergencies?

We have been successful in supporting each other and some partners, particularly with the effective use of our mechanisms, including the EADRCC. It is NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism.
We welcome that the EADRCC has facilitated responses to 16 requests for international assistance, including from seven Allies and eight partners. We are continuing our work to see what we can do to support the 12 requests for assistance that remain active.  The EADRCC received requests for assistance from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) as well, which has already been taken into consideration. 
In addition, military forces from across the Alliance have flown more than 100 missions to transport medical personnel and hundreds of tons of supplies. 
The Alliance has adopted what is called seven baseline requirements. NATO has shared the details of them with selected partners to support their efforts in this area.
On NATO-EU cooperation, this crisis has also demonstrated the need for both organisations to strengthen themselves within their own comparative advantages. Cooperation between the two can only run as a two-way street. NATO is not in competition with the EU. We expect the same approach from the EU. 

IV.    What role do parliamentarians play in this crisis? And what role can interparliamentary diplomacy, including within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, play to mitigate this crisis and prepare for the next crisis?

The balance between security and human rights and freedoms has always been one of the most important topics of discussion in politics. Now, this epidemic has brought fundamentally similar but new discussions to our political landscape. Public health versus human rights and freedoms. Since the first days of the epidemic, there has been strong propaganda claiming that authoritarian approaches are more successful in combating the pandemic. I believe this is a dangerous track of thought that is clearly false and should be disproved. In fact, as a vivid democracy, Turkey has already given the most serious answer to all these arguments with its success in combating the pandemic. It has shown to the whole world that the government and citizens must struggle hand in hand within the framework of respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

The issue of public health and human rights and freedoms will undoubtedly be on the agenda of our respective parliaments and international organisations in the upcoming period. In this context, we, the parliamentarians, have important duties. As everyone knows, parliaments have four main functions: law-making, scrutiny, debating, and budget. In the framework of fulfilling all these functions, we will play a big role in overcoming this crisis and preparing for the future, but always in line with the democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Therefore, parliamentary diplomacy will also make an important contribution to our efforts by making it possible to share best practices and experiences among all colleagues. In this context, I attribute a great value to the NATO PA.

As parliamentarians we should focus on allocating more resources particularly on two areas. First one is research on combatting biological warfare as this pandemic strongly demonstrated our vulnerability to attacks that might generate from biological technologies. The second component that we should allocate more budget to is the civil and military preparedness on national levels. 

Actually, this pandemic has shown us any country cannot win the war against the virus alone and do everything by itself. I believe that international organisations will take on central roles and international cooperation has to become stronger. However, the pandemic has also revealed that international organisations are sometimes unable to fulfil their missions and have created bloated bureaucratic structures over time. On the other hand, NATO has done exemplary work. So, we should promote this success and share our experience with other organisations to support and assist them.
NATO’s role as the main platform for transatlantic consultations becomes more prominent in times of crises. Therefore, parliamentarians can play an active role in reflecting Allied public opinions and their priorities.

Osman Askin Bak, NATO PA Vice-President and Head of the Turkish Delegation

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