The term “United Nations,” which U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt coined in 1942, reflected a commitment, articulated in the Declaration of United Nations, to “defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice”. The declaration formally established the coalition that would ultimately overthrow the Axis powers, bringing an end to the Second World War.
Fast forward eight decades: The world’s worst violators of human rights, including China and Russia, now serve on the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the likes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan make a mockery of multilateralism and international norms by gaslighting nations at the U.N. General Assembly. Roosevelt must be turning in his grave.
Erdoğan, in particular, has made a habit of trolling the General Assembly, which meets in September every year, by repeatedly lecturing members that “the world [is] more than five” – a reference to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – suggesting that Turkey should get a permanent seat.
Yet it is hard to take seriously calls for governance reform from an autocrat who has dismantled democracy at home. Erdoğan has gone as far as imprisoning a presidential contender – Selahattin Demirtas – for the last five years. A week before the Turkish president’s U.N. address, the Council of Europe called on Ankara to free Demirtas, who remains in prison despite 2018 and 2020 rulings in favour of his release by the European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are binding on Turkey.
This year, in costly and empty spectacles that cater mainly to a domestic audience, the Turkish president’s U.N. stunts included the promotion of his recently launched book, A Fairer World is Possible, on New York’s billboards and trucks. Erdoğan also distributed the book to world leaders during the General Assembly. In his book, Erdoğan calls for increasing the number of permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to 20, an effort to diffuse power. Erdoğan’s call poses a striking contrast to his hyper-centralisation of control at home through the amassing of executive, legislative and judicial powers in what amounts to one-man rule.
As Erdoğan struggled in vain during his New York visit to secure – in an attempt to boost his popularity back home – an in-person meeting with his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden on the sidelines of the General Assembly, the Turkish president avoided the angry tone that marked some of his plenary addresses in earlier years. Instead, he devoted most of his speech to relatively less contentious issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
It was ironic that when Erdoğan lectured U.N. member states about the “irreparable consequences” of climate change, he did so as the president of the only G-20 country that had not yet ratified the Paris Climate Accords, alongside five other signatories: Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Two weeks after Erdoğan’s U.N. talk and more than five years after Ankara’s signing of the international agreement, the Turkish parliament finally ratified it, only after France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development offered financial inducements. Meanwhile, on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, Turkey ranks 175 out of 180 countries in the “Biodiversity & Habitat” category, which “assesses countries’ actions toward retaining natural ecosystems and protecting the full range of biodiversity within their borders”.
At home, Erdoğan’s trademark has been an out-of-control construction boom that has transformed Turkish cities into a dystopian urban jungle, unfit for human habitation. The Turkish president’s aversion to climate activism goes as far as refusing to register Turkey’s Green Party for over a year, in clear breach of the country’s political parties law.
Erdoğan also lectured the world about the COVID-19 outbreak, hypocritically contending that underdeveloped countries and poor segments of societies have been “literally left to their fate in the face of the pandemic”. Yet last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund issued a warning after Turkey-backed armed groups interrupted the flow of water from the Alouk water station to regions of northeast Syria, where close to 500,000 reside, including tens of thousands of internally displaced persons sheltered at camps. The agency cautioned that the “interruption of water supply during the current efforts to curb the spread of the Coronavirus disease puts children and families at unacceptable risk”. Since then, Erdoğan’s Syrian Islamist proxies have cut off water to the region numerous times, prompting accusations by experts of weaponising water in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Erdoğan’s bragging about his government’s success in the fight against the Islamic State and in the prevention of “ethnic cleansing” in Syria must have sounded surreal to tens of millions of Turks, Kurds and Arabs, who have long complained about the Erdoğan government’s negligence, complicity and culpability since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Only a month before Erdoğan’s U.N. speech, journalists exposed the lenient treatment by Turkish courts of Islamic State suspects, allowing them to walk free – including militants responsible for the abduction and enslavement of Yazidi girls. Meanwhile, frequent media reports describe the Erdoğan government’s ongoing demographic engineering efforts in northern Syria, which have led to the replacement of local Kurds, Assyrians and Yazidis with Ankara’s Islamist proxies.
The top prize among Erdoğan’s gaslighting attempts goes to his comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his U.N. speech, the Turkish president advocated for “reviving the peace process and the vision for a two-state solution without any further delay”. Yet Erdoğan remains one of the leading patrons of the terrorist-designated Palestinian organisation Hamas, whose 1998 charter commits to the destruction of Israel.
Last year, Erdoğan publicised, through the Turkish presidency’s official Twitter account, hosting two Hamas chiefs: senior military leader Saleh al-Arouri and senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh, who are on Washington’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Given that Erdoğan joined Iran last year to oppose the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbours, the Turkish president’s advocacy for “peace” appears more like a mockery of ongoing diplomatic efforts.
The idea of a “United Nations” has changed radically from Roosevelt’s vision. Today, the United Nations provides a podium that authoritarian regimes exploit to advance their agendas, mock international norms and gaslight victims.
The United Nations itself appears incapable of developing any effective pushback against such abuse within its current institutional configuration. Thus, it is time for governments committed to Roosevelt’s vision to take concerted action to prevent enemies of human rights from subverting international organisations and bullying vulnerable nations and communities. A good start would be to deploy the respective global Magnitsky laws that Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States passed to target the most egregious human rights violators and corrupt officials in authoritarian regimes, who time and again undermine the United Nations and its founding values.