The United Nations: Erdogan's Favorite Platform for Trolling the World | Opinion

The United Nations General Assembly, which meets every September, offers authoritarian heads of state their favorite platform for trolling the world. For this year's 75th annual session, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his trademark mockery of multilateralism by lecturing members that "the world is bigger than five," his euphemism for reshuffling the UN Security Council to get Turkey a permanent seat. Erdogan's calls to reform the United Nations might have found a sympathetic audience had it not come from a strongman who institutionalized one-man rule at home by destroying democratic governance and the rule of law during his nearly 18 years in office.

Between his annual pitches to redesign the United Nations to his own advantage, Erdogan found time to hurl anti-Semitic remarks. This year, he referred to Israel as "the dirty hand that reaches the privacy of Jerusalem," prompting a walkout from Israeli envoy Gilad Erdan, who accused the Turkish president of continuing "to spout anti-Semitic and false statements against Israel." Last year, Erdogan compared developments in Gaza to the Holocaust, eliciting a similar response from Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz via Twitter: "There is no other way to interpret Erdogan's crude and vile words—it is antisemitism, clear cut."

Rather than represent a genuine desire to fix the United Nations, where authoritarian regimes have secured clout over the last decade to shield themselves from international scrutiny, Erdogan offers a classic example of a strongman bent on exploiting intergovernmental organizations.

The Turkish president's disregard for UN conventions, resolutions and sanctions is well documented. For example, a 376-page report the UN Panel of Experts on Libya issued in December 2019 found that Turkey, among others, violated a 2011 embargo by delivering arms and fighters to the war-torn North African country. The panel stated that the transfers to Libya were "repeated and sometimes blatant, with scant regard paid to compliance with the sanctions measures."

Erdogan's record is even more disconcerting in northern Syria. In a report the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released on September 15, the panel accused Turkey's jihadist proxies of committing war crimes, including hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, rape and pillaging. The panel also accused Ankara's proxies of violating international humanitarian law by looting and destroying cultural property. Such violations, the report stated, "may entail criminal responsibility for [Turkish] commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission."

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he gives a press conference after the cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on September 21, 2020. Adem Altan/AFP/Getty

Erdogan's Syria policies prompted criticism from another UN agency—the United Nations Children's Fund—in March, 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 warned 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."

The latest UN agency to clash with Erdogan was the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which expressed its deep regrets for the Turkish president's conversion of Istanbul's sixth-century Byzantine church, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. The conversion breached Ankara's legal commitments in accordance with the monument's status as a museum on the World Heritage List.

The Turkish president's abuse of the United Nations also extends to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In June 2016, 230 NGOs from around the world penned an open letter to ECOSOC criticizing the politicization of the United Nations' Committee on NGOs. Over the years, Turkey has received criticism for playing a large role in that politicization by using procedural tactics to block the granting of consultative status to NGOs, or withdraw that status from NGOs as a form of reprisal.

Both the United States and the European Union have expressed concern over the number of deferred applicants and called for an end to arbitrary questioning of NGOs at the committee. In February 2018, Geneva-based human rights watchdog UN Watch condemned the election of Turkey as the vice chair of the committee that accredits and oversees the work of human rights groups at the world body.

Erdogan's lofty general assembly speech and calls for reform and multilateral cooperation will not find a sympathetic audience beyond fellow authoritarians who share an interest in making a mockery of international norms. The Turkish president's key motivation for "fixing" the United Nations is to open it and other intergovernmental organizations to further abuse. Erdogan and others hope to bully their neighbors and trample upon vulnerable individuals and communities around the world without international scrutiny. It is imperative for democratic nations to join forces for genuine reform at international institutions, to deny impunity to autocrats and prevent them from adding insult to injury from their podiums.

Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Philip Kowalski (@philip_kowalski) is a research associate at the Turkey Program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.