UN undermines its own authority in new Turkey deal

By Michael Rubin. Published on December 9, 2021

UN Secretary-General António Guterres often laments limits to the UN’s authority. In the United States especially, many politicians often roll their eyes at UN pronouncements and then proceed to ignore them. In 1994, for example, John Bolton—who, ironically, would briefly serve as the US Ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, famously said, that if the UN headquarters “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Such sentiment might spark outrage among progressives and proponents of expansive, UN-centric international law but, often, the UN itself is to blame for the cynicism it engenders. This was the case when Kofi Annan, then-undersecretary for Peace-Keeping Operations, stood down while Hutu génocidaires conducted their anti-Tutsi genocide and, as secretary-general, presided over the institution’s worst corruption scandal. It was also the case when Mary Robinson, a former Irish president who subsequently became the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, sponsored a conference in Durban that became a magnet for anti-Semitism and intolerance; her action, denial, and deaf ear did more to delegitimize the UN’s moral authority than almost any outside entity could have done.

Unfortunately, Guterres now makes a similar mistake. Turkey is increasingly defiant of international law. Turkey has violated UN Security Council Resolutions and decades of status quo to move into Varosha, a once-vibrant quarter in Famagusta, initially transformed into a ghost town when Turkey invaded Cyprus almost a half-century ago. The Varosha land grab had nothing to do with peace and everything to do with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeking to funnel reconstruction contracts to his political supporters and family members.

In recent years, Erdoğan has additionally poured Turkish settlers into Cyprus to drown out the voice of northern Cyprus’ more moderate indigenous Muslim community. In recent months, Erdoğan abandoned any pretense of resolving the Cyprus issue diplomatically and instead seeks permanent division. Erdoğan has also thumbed his nose at the international community with his conversion into a mosque of the Hagia Sophia among other violations of religious freedom as well as his imprisonment of philanthropist Osman Kavala despite multiple acquittals.

Ordinarily, a moral UN that took its own words seriously would ostracize Turkey for its actions under the Erdoğan regime rather than reward them. Unfortunately, Guterres chooses the latter.

The UN has recently decided to transform Istanbul into a hub for its operations. “The U.N. will relocate some headquarters to Istanbul from Geneva and open an Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the metropolis to support field operations worldwide,” Hürriyet Daily News reported earlier this week.

Istanbul is a wonderful city—certainly my favorite—and Turkey hosts many refugees from Syria, but the UN move is a mistake: It legitimizes both Erdoğan’s repeated weaponization of refugees in an effort to extract concessions from the European Union as well as the demographic games Erdoğan plays as he seeks to dilute the Alevi and Kurdish communities in Turkey. The facilities the UN will lease will directly benefit Erdoğan’s supporters if not Erdoğan himself. The move also signals to Erdoğan that the UN is no longer serious about resolving the Cyprus dispute; otherwise, it would make transfer of offices to Istanbul contingent upon a resolution. Most importantly, operating from inside Turkey gives Erdoğan the ability to hijack U.S. assistance to benefit those willing to support him while denying it to those who are not.

If Guterres wishes to understand why so many hold the UN in low regard, he need look no further than this latest decision. Principle should take precedent over the desire of UN officials to enjoy Istanbul’s good life. Unfortunately, the secretary-general shows that on his watch, it does not.