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[OPINION] Erdoğan waging a vicious campaign against the UN

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By Abdullah Bozkurt

A refusal to let up on UN bashing by Turkey’s autocratic president in an unprecedented and vicious campaign of discrediting the world body is mainly motivated by his growing fear of being dragged into the global spotlight and held accountable for crimes against humanity because of arming and funding radical militants all over. The UN’s pivotal role in exposing massive rights violations of Turkish citizens by the current regime in the last several years has frustrated Turkey’s top Islamist ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

He has been saying that 1.7 billion Muslims in the world are not represented at the UN Security Council as if the seats were allocated on religious criteria and even claimed that the permanent member states are all Christian. He maintained that Turkey, the current chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), could be the voice of all Muslims in the absence of such a voice at the UN. He eventually concluded that the UN has become a burden on all humanity and said he no longer has any expectations from this body. In one public rally, Erdoğan went as far as to say that Germany, India and Japan all think like him but were afraid to say it out loud. Lashing out at the UN has become the hallmark of Erdoğan’s public speeches, and I’m decoding here why he is doing that.

Erdoğan’s total control of the media, which has effectively been transformed into a propaganda machine for the government, and the near paralysis of the political opposition under his oppressive and intrusive policies did not help Erdoğan make a credible case for the world audience. The Turkish president’s long-held dream of ascending to a caliph-like position over Muslim nations was quashed, and his naïve and rather blatant interference into the affairs of Arab and Muslim nations was thwarted in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and others. Now he appears to have panicked over the prospect of the further exposing of his clandestine business dealings that fueled armed clashes and violent events in foreign countries. The UN Security Council remains a crucial player in possibly referring this man to be tried at the International Criminal Court.

Therefore, this international pariah has taken it upon himself to wage a crusade against the UN, slamming it in every international forum and during state visits abroad with the hope of undermining the UN’s role in the event this body decides to take legal action against him and his associates. The Erdoğan regime has clearly been violating approximately a dozen Security Council resolutions, in particular 10 adopted on counterterrorism such as Resolutions 2170 (2014), 2178 (2014) and 2199 (2015), which call for criminal prosecution of those member states that allow, facilitate or sponsor radical terror groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Al Nusra Front and their affiliates.

Official UN documents have accumulated a sizable archive on how Erdoğan and his Islamist associates have been arming and funding radical groups in foreign countries from Syria to Libya. Russia has already submitted several documents to the UN Security Council alleging Erdoğan’s family members were involved in illegal oil smuggling by ISIL, used state-owned banks to transfer funds to radicals and tapped front charity groups to deliver arms to Syrian rebels. Similarly Erdoğan’s irredentist policies with respect to another neighbor, Iraq, was also raised at the UN when Baghdad called on the Security Council to insure the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Iraq, where they had set up an illegal military camp in violation of the country’s sovereignty.

The second reason why Erdoğan hates the UN so much stems from the fact that relevant UN institutions have been documenting gross human rights violations perpetrated by his regime against critics, opponents and dissidents across the board from all walks of life. In its 29th session of the Universal Periodic Review in 2015, the UN General Assembly Human Rights Council found serious shortcomings in the fulfillment of commitments by its member state Turkey and laid out a long list of recommendations. Many of the recommendations that were made at the conclusion of the review by the UN member states were rebuffed by the Erdoğan regime.

At Erdoğan’s request, Turkey’s representative even declined to support the recommendations made by Syria and Egypt on preventing the movement of terrorist groups, including those benefiting from transnational organized crime, and refraining from undertaking actions beyond its borders that contribute to violations and abuses of human rights including through immediate termination of any relevant form of political, military, logistical or financial support in this regard. Ankara shied away from committing itself to “genuine and full commitment to international treaties and resolutions combating terrorism, especially Security Council resolutions 2170 (2014) and 2178 (2014),” according to a report issued by the UN on April 13, 2015.

The third reason why Erdoğan locked horns with the UN is the bitter defeat his government sustained during the race for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in October 2014. Erdoğan’s fall from grace in the world spotlight was confirmed when the Turkish government was only able to garner 60 votes in the election at the UNSC as opposed to the 150 votes it received only five years ago. Erdoğan’s meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs with Islamist policies and his abuse of Turkey’s status at the UN to push for his own personal interests appeared to have backfired. To protect his corrupt network of businesses with companies owned and operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) which violated several sanctions against Iran, Erdoğan at the last minute even ordered his representative at the UN to vote “no,” instead of at least abstaining, to the fresh round of Iran sanctions when Turkey held a non-permanent seat in 2010. That went against Turkey’s track record of aligning with the Western bloc, considered a betrayal by the allies that were trying to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Shunned and prevented from joining the Security Council for a second time, Erdoğan is trying to smear the UN in a vindictive campaign.

Fourthly, Erdoğan is antagonized by the role played by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on how to best handle the influx of Syrian and other refugees in Turkey. For Erdoğan, refugees were simply leverage to be used against Syria in the initial years of the conflict that started in 2011. In a covert operation, the Turkish intelligence agency encouraged the first exodus from Syria, and Ankara sharply rebuffed repatriation offers by the Syrian government to take these refugees back with full amnesty and financial incentives. Instead, Turkey started building modern camps and advertising them in order to stimulate further refugee waves to put Syria next to other Muslim nations that faced “Arab Spring” revolutions. Most camps were turned into breeding grounds for Erdoğan to raise jihadists to go back to Syria and fight against the Bashar Al Assad regime.

When it suited him, Erdoğan also used Syrian and other refugees as a trump card against Europe by clandestinely organizing migrant waves last year to further his political goals and arm-twist European leaders. It paid off handsomely when European leaders succumbed to Erdoğan’s blackmail, toned down their criticism of rights violations, disregarded their own values and gave Erdoğan red-carpet treatment in high-profile photo-ops at European summits. The UNHCR, led by Antonio Guterres, who is the new secretary-general of the UN, saw Erdoğan’s dirty games with refugees from the start. I met Guterres in 2014 during his visit to Ankara during which he emphasized the importance of the registry system for all refugees. Unofficial estimates say 4 million Syrians live in Turkey, but only some 2.7 million are registered. The gap is a perfect cover for Erdoğan to tap into human resources among refugees to train and arm paramilitary forces. The UNHCR also opposed the Turkey-EU deal, said it was against international law and closely monitored its implementation. UNICEF was not spared from vitriolic hate speech spewed by Erdoğan, who remarked that EU funds went to UNICEF for child refugees in Turkey as opposed to direct transfers to his government that has its own projects.

Fifth, the Turkish president is angry with the UN because two prominent UN figures exposed at the global level what he has been doing in Turkey, from massive torture of opposition figures to an unprecedented crackdown on media freedom. That is why the Turkish government abruptly cancelled the visit of the UN’s outgoing special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, scheduled to take place from Oct. 10-14, 2016. Méndez, whose six-year term as special rapporteur ended on Oct. 31, was going to investigate claims of mass torture in prisons and detention centers after the arrest of tens of thousands of people in Turkey, from journalists to doctors, from teachers to lawyers, who apparently had nothing to do with an abortive coup on July 15. His successor, Nils Melzer, was finally able to visit Turkey from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2, during which time he verified what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been saying all along about wide-scale torture in Turkish prisons, detention centers and holding areas.

Similarly, David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, also visited Turkey in November, calling on Turkey to release all jailed journalists, whom the Erdoğan regime describes as terrorists. Kaye said he understood the Turkish government’s need to take measures to counter terror threats and protect its citizens but warned that “that does not mean that the government has a blank check to do whatever it wants to restrict freedom of expression.” In other words, both Melzer and Kaye have dealt a huge blow to the official Turkish government storyline on the torture and imprisonment of journalists, critics and opponents by exposing what the Erdoğan regime has been doing behind the façade of battling terror and coup plotters.

The UN also highlighted the mass dismissal and arrest of thousands of judges and prosecutors in Turkey, drawing attention to one high-profile judge, Aydin Sefa Akay, who is serving at a UN organization that was established to deal with residual legal issues and appeals stemming from cases before UN tribunals concerning atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Judge Akay was arrested on Sept. 21 and remains incarcerated despite his status at the UN, which gives him immunities and privileges. Akay, a former judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was elected as a UN judge for a four-year term on July 1, 2012. He was again appointed to a two-year term on July 1, 2016. He was assigned to the appeals bench in The Hague for an ongoing case. His boss, the president of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, Theodor Meron, told the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Security Council about his arrest, urging them to insure his release. So far, the Erdoğan regime has balked at these requests. Most likely Erdoğan is trying to use him as a bargaining chip and to send a message to the UN and ICC that he’ll play a hardball if one day he is to be held accountable for crimes against humanity.

Another irritant that troubles Erdoğan is the UN’s role in preventing Erdoğan’s long arm from reaching abroad to persecute his critics and opponents. For some time Erdoğan has been trying to export his witch-hunt campaign overseas, especially singling out a civic movement called Hizmet inspired by the teachings of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen that focuses on science education, volunteerism, interfaith and intercultural dialogue and charity aid. Using political pressure, economic perks and even the offering of outright bribes, Erdoğan has tried to convince foreign leaders to jail or deport Hizmet volunteers and shut down their schools and institutions. In a few countries where Erdoğan has succeeded so far, teachers and other Hizmet volunteers suddenly found themselves in a no-man’s land. With their passports revoked and facing certain abuse and torture in Turkish jails if returned, they turned to the UN for refuge. In several cases, UNHCR has been able to offer legal status to stranded Hizmet volunteers and helped them navigate this troubled patch.

The UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (CMW), which monitors the implementation of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, identified a series of shortcomings on the part of Turkey, which ratified the convention in 2004. UN experts at the CMW asked the Turkish government to explain how Turkish embassies and consulates comply with the relevant provisions of the convention against the backdrop of Turkish diplomatic missions refusing to issue documents to critics and opponents. There have been reports that some Turkish embassies even falsified documents and unlawfully filed missing reports to invalidate the passports of Turkish citizens abroad. Queried by the UN, the Turkish government sent its explanation on April 8, and the UN committee published its response on May 31, 2016. The UN committee also questioned Turkish diplomats in person before publishing its report, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on April 15, 2016. The meeting, chaired by Jose S. Brillantes, the head of the UN’s CMW and a former undersecretary at the Philippine foreign ministry, saw Turkish Ambassador Mehmet Ferden Çarıkçı defending the government view that the foreign ministry is monitoring problems faced by Turkish migrant workers abroad when in fact diplomats are busy profiling critics and refusing to provide services in consular sections.

For all the reasons mentioned above and perhaps even more, Erdoğan has adopted the new mission of smearing and discrediting the UN. He sent his most trusted diplomat, Feridun Sinirloğlu, a crooked official who had done Erdoğan’s dirty bidding for years as undersecretary of the foreign ministry, to monitor what is happening in UN corridors and undermine initiatives that may hurt the Turkish president and his family members.

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