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  • Writer's pictureDoğukan Atmaca

Corona Impact over UK Peacekeeping Policy

COVID-19 hit the world suddenly in an unexpected way, and the current worldwide case number is already over 2 million and increasing rapidly. The United Kingdom is one of the countries badly hit by the virus.  It is not sarcastic anymore to say that “we are in a war against corona”. The NHS is in a dramatic crisis getting worse every day, and it is hard to estimate the situation for the next week. According to the UK Defence Journal (UKDJ), RAF helicopters are used as air ambulances, and Cobham, a British military manufacturing company, will soon be producing ventilators for the NHS. The UK economy has almost stopped, and financial reports are worrying for 2020 and 2021. On the other hand, many other fragile countries such as Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan seemingly, fail applying enough COVID-19 tests, so numbers might be misleading. Therefore, how will be the impact of this crisis over the UK's peacekeeping policies?

In 2018, PM Theresa May was under pressure due to the government decision to participate in joint bombing Syria together with France and the US against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. However, the claims were not fully justified, and Mrs. May had to face strong criticism from all opposition parties on legitimacy of the assault. She had to underline that the bombing was necessary, and the UK had the right to do that under international law. In 2018, this reminded UK participation into the Iraq war under Tony Blair's government in 2003. In July 2016, Chilcot Report, published by an ex British civil servant Sir John Chilcot, unveiled a list of matters which are not in favour of the Blair administration. According to the report, British participation was not necessary as Saddam Hussein was not a big threat for  the UK, and Tony Blair promised US president George Bush personally for a state matter. Doubtlessly, the report would have had a great impact over the government if it could have been prepared during Blair’s tenure.

Therefore, British governments, as May underlined the legitimacy and necessity of the 2018 joint attack in Syria, are aware of the complexity and hardness of military actions abroad even for “peacekeeping” operations. Currently, the UK has military deployments in 11 overseas locations. Three of them are in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and appear as the most fragile locations. As briefly discussed, Iraq has already been a discussion affecting UK’s Syria policy. This resettlement is one reason to revise UK peacekeeping policy.

On the other hand, since the independence of India in 1950, Britain seems more inclined to leave her colonial role for a mediator and guarantor position in former colonies such as Malaysia, Singapore, or Cyprus. Influencing these regions for British interests is highly costly, a Worker Party report from the “post-colonisation” era shows that Britain could have saved up to £120 million only from Mediterranean and the Middle East in 1965. Indeed, the Kingdom gave up from her crown colony Cyprus to Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in return of keeping Akrotiri and Dhekelia bases as her own sovereign in the island. In 2017, during Crans-Montana talks between the UK, Turkey, Greece, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, the foreign minister Boris Johnson even mentioned leaving half of the bases to Cypriots under a resettlement scheme. It seems like Cyprus, East Mediterranean, Egypt, Suez, Syria, and Iraq do not evoke the same interest in the eyes of the UK government. In fact, the “Commonwealth” as a meeting, mediating project works well enough, and allows the UK to keep her ties alive with the former colonies for any trade, military operations.

Out of Mediterranean, the UK shows interest in new military deployments in Guyana due to Venezuela, Belize due to Guatemala, and Brunei to curb Chinese influence in South East Asia. However, suddenly, a new actor appeared in the stage: COVID-19. We do not see politics, regional disputes as much as we used to see back in two months ago, as the virus news covers all top news stories. The UK economy has diminished since the 2016 Brexit referendum, and now expert institutions like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Oxford Economics predict a dramatic fall between -7,5% to -24% for the second quarter of 2020. The worse is no one clearly forecast when it will be safe to turn back to economic activities. In addition to that scenario, the government announced that it will pay 80% of salaries within a £30 billion budget for the pandemic. This budget was announced in a time when NHS fiscal issues are still fresh, and the UK has shown signs of a badly going economy also due to Brexit.

We do not know where this £30bn will come from in a time incurring debt will be harder than war times as cash flow is dropping down dramatically in the whole world. Before stopping, or at least controlling, the pandemic, how come the UK can invest in military expenses for peacekeeping while there is a lack of peace in the country. One of the main concerns when the UK gave up sovereignty over colonies was the high cost of it. Even recent military deployments in Singapore, Guyana, Caribbean or Brunei were delayed due to financial pressure from HM Treasury before the COVID-19 outbreak. A budget for peacekeeping-military operations abroad would face the government under high pressure. In addition to legitimacy and necessity concerns for Blair’s Iraq and May’s Syria operations, the Johnson government will have to offer stronger arguments for a peacekeeping budget abroad.

Also, it seems like the British army is getting busier and using its facilities and staff to support healthcare rather than focusing British interests or peacekeeping abroad. It was reported by UKDJ that 15 paramedics and combat medical technicians are working for NHS, Royal Navy helicopters are being used as air ambulances, RAF transfers patients to hospitals, fighter jet technology manufacturers offer producing ventilators, and reservists to be called to support national COVID-19 response. RFA Argus, Royal Navy auxiliary ship, arrived in Bermuda on 15 April, earlier than scheduled to support the overseas territory against the fight with the pandemic. It seems like British army is participating in this viral war with the NHS not only with its paramedics but also with its battlefield facilities.

With the post-colonial era, the United Kingdom has already turned her interest into a smaller and local scale. Indeed, 1973 was the year the Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (ECC), but also the Commonwealth together with former colonies as independent free nations, allowed her to protect her interest out of Europe while saving billions of sterling from military budgets every year. Moreover, the US-UK alliance is safe both in bilateral and under NATO roof.  In addition to that, all this expenditure over COVID-19 and effects of Brexit, in my opinion, will step Britain down from her international peacekeeping duties. Peacekeeping is a very arguable matter even without fiscal issues as the country has experienced recently with the Chilcot Report in 2016 and with the military operation in Syria in 2018. Under the circumstances, no one would blame the government for using its sources and facilities against the virus in the country rather than funding more troops and military facilities abroad. In another word, in 2020, the greatest peacekeeping policy is controlling the pandemic.

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