30 March 2020

The COVID-19 crisis – the NATO response to civil emergency situations

Ştefan Oprea

Even if, in some cases, the army plays or can play an important role in local retaliation actions to coronavirus, let’s hope that, within NATO, the member states will keep armies’ fight capacities, the energy and available resources to focus also on the other threats the Alliance faces, particularly in the following difficult times.

Image source: Hepta

In such difficult times, the international assistance requests addressed to NATO show that some military structures, thanks to their dual utilization potential and the training condition, can quickly react civil emergency situations. The civil defence or humanitarian assistance intervention in the moments following a natural disaster is determinant.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic, which is globally extended and has serious consequences, crosses the apprehension sphere of actions related to natural disasters and asks for a review of Alliance’s work mechanisms, in order to avoid misunderstandings in interpreting its possibilities to fulfil them, but also to avoid disappointments regarding its results.

Even if NATO, for the past years, through the civil and military structures, played an important role in providing humanitarian and other types of help during major disasters, there are huge differences on the purpose, roles and specific capacities between the North Atlantic Organization Treaty, the European Union and the United Nations Organization.

All these organizations were committed to offer an effective, early response to disasters, to provide assistances and answers to the real needs of the affected people, regardless if crises’ locations are in Europe, the Euro-Atlantic area or not.

NATO is a political and military alliance between the US, Canada and the biggest part of Europe’s states and works, as responsible structure, through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre-EADRCC.

EU is firstly a political and economic union of the European states, wherein many of the member states belong to both organizations. The existence, within the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) are part of EU, the most active structure in offering global help to victims of disasters.

UN is the most important organization in the world that promotes the international cooperation and has a main role in coordinating the global help operations, in case of disasters (the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - OCHA). It is noteworthy that UN is the main responsible with coordinating international rescue operations in case of disasters and provides the framework whereby each actor (EU, NATO, etc.) can contribute to the general response in case of an emergency.

The NATO involvement in humanitarian assistance

In order to understand how NATO can get involved in the humanitarian assistance to disasters, we must accept, from the very beginning, that the North Atlantic Organization is not a major humanitarian actor. Even if the protection of civilians was Alliance’s focus during its first years of existence, the disasters’ assistance within the member states, which crossed the national capacities and needed coordination and assistance from NATO (the 1953 Belgium and Netherlands inundations, the 1976 earthquake in Italy) consisted in procedures for coordinating the support between its members, which were available until May 1995, when were reviewed and started to be available for partner countries as well.

On December 17th 1997, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), at a ministerial session, has approved the establishment of a Euro-Atlantic response capability to disasters. On June 3rd 1998, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) was inaugurated as a partnership tool of the NATO civil emergency planning and as one of the two basic elements of the EAPC policy on international cooperation to disasters. The other complementary element is the Memorandum of Understanding – MoU on easing the cross-border transport of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Unit.

As its main objective is the civil support for Alliance’s operations (art. 5 or non art. 5), the national authorities in civil emergency situations, as well as people’s protection against mass destruction weapons’ effects, EADRCC and its own personnel or the attached one, offered by nations, can act whenever the member states or partner states require. With national experts in the industry, research and administration, depending on catastrophe’s specific, the Centre’s role is coordinating the NATO response to conduct the management efforts of disaster’s consequences, as well as the chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear effects.

It is noteworthy that the affected country stays responsible for the disasters’ management, and the UN has the role to coordinate the international rescue operations. EADRCC completes and provides additional support for UN’s role in the EAPC area, closely coordinated with the other international organizations (the International Red Cross Committee, the International Atomic Energy International Agency for Atomic Energy, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the World Health Organization and the European Union).

The activation mechanism of the Disaster Response Coordination Centre

Any country, bet it NATO member or partner, signatory of the documents establishing the initiative (Russia was excluded after Crimea’s illegal annexation) can submit a Request for International Assistance in Disasters. The most recent example is the request addressed to NATO by the defence ministries of Ukraine and Spain, the Interior Ministry of Italy and the Government of Montenegro by which they requests international assistance to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EADRCC, after receiving political directions from NATO, sends the assistance request to all member countries and partners, which, in turn, respond by communicating their assistance offers to EADRCC and/or the affected country. The centre keeps track of the offered assistance (including assistance from other international organizations and actors), the accepted assistance by the affected country, the delivery dates and the assistance still needed as well as the actual situation on the ground. 

All information is transmitted to NATO and partner countries as status reports and is also published on the EADRCC website.

When the situation requires, upon request, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Unit (EADRU), provided by a country designated by NATO and comprising voluntary multinational civil and military elements (qualified personnel, medical units, equipment and materials, means of transport, etc.), can be activated and deployed in the affected area. During the deployment, it will act along with the UN, other international institutions and national structures for disaster response.

During the past years, the EADRCC has responded to more than 60 aid requests, submitted by nations. These included inundations, forest fires, earthquakes, heavy snowfall, Ebola, the refugee crisis, etc. Even Romania benefited from assistance through this NATO mechanism during the 2005 inundation.

It is important that, since 1998, the collective use of NATO military capabilities for humanitarian operations has happened only a few times. The most important were the NATO response to the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, in the United States, in August 2005, the NATO assistance to Pakistan, following the October 2005 earthquake, and the NATO support for relief efforts, following the 2010 Pakistan monsoon floods.

The COVID-19 can affect the people, but also the Alliance

As it crosses difficult times, NATO will face, first and foremost, this pandemic catastrophe that will affect people's health and withstand the effects of the economic damage created by the current quarantine and blockages. Therefore, military costs will pale in the face of priorities imposed by economic recovery. Without analyzing the long-term impact of the coronavirus crisis on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we must, however, note that the threat idea within the Alliance will fundamentally change. Not to mention its effects on NATO’s cohesion, the EU/NATO's initial, hesitant response to the onset of the pandemic crisis shows that the organization’s resilience to the disturbing challenges of human existence requires modern approaches to new realities.

From this point of view, NATO, along with other member states, will have to analyze the possibility of creating a stable balance between the internal military obligations and the ones imposed by the foreign security threats. This is a true challenge, given that the more this pandemic will last, the difficult this balance will be for the policy makers.

Undoubtedly, the huge difficulties the coronavirus provoked in Europe and North America have force the policy makers to focus on the internal crisis. At the same time, NATO and its members cannot lose their strategic focus.

English version by Andreea Soare