See my piece under this title posted on the webpage of The Hague Institute for Global Justice on 16 May 2014.
As every one of us should know, Turks may be predominantly Muslim but they are not Arab. They speak a different language, they originate in another part of the world, and have their own separate history, even if they border and interact over centuries with the Arab world. So the term Arab Spring would not apply to Turkey, even if the country underwent a similar upheaval as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Turkey’s immediate neighbour Syria. Beyond semantics, there are fundamental differences of substance between the aforementioned Arab countries and Turkey. The latter is certainly a democracy, sui generis perhaps, like many are, but still a country with a political system that allows a free vote for all and where the government has the support of the majority of the population (unlike in some other democracies, one may note).
Turkey has been undergoing a revolutionary transformation of its own for several springs now, since the coming to power of the AK Party of Prime Minister Erdogan. This may be the most democratic time the country has ever known, with the millions of previously silent or silenced Turks of Anatolia, pious and hard-working people, having a government they can recognize as their own, rather than an overt or covert dictatorship that attempts to impose Western secular values, or at least appearances, on the whole country.
Let it be known, I am mostly a Western secularist myself, although spiritual in my own way. A few years ago I would have felt very uncomfortable being surrounded by women with covered heads, or men with Muslim caps and long beards. I occasionally still wish that they did not do these things and we could all look alike, distinguished by the brands, colours and styles of clothes that we choose to wear. After living for several years in New York, though, and even more recently in multicultural and increasingly Arab Brussels (it is the same Brussels of the European Union), I have to admit that I am more comfortable with all this. I can see that some people feel more confident, dignified and reassured when they follow the customs of their home countries, even in a human environment that has different traditions and may occasionally react. They feel that they continue to belong to a community, and may be lucky enough to still do so, at a time when globalization is tearing apart old identities without having created a new one – unless that is consumerism.
So I could not deny the Muslim faithful of Turkey their right to express their traditional identity and to have it recognized in the laws of their country, without fear of legal or military persecution. At the same time, I would see a revenge unworthy of pious people if now that they are in power reversed things completely and denied the rest of their compatriots the right to express their secularism and Western orientation. It is on this point that the recent protests in Turkish cities can be seen as justified. Combined with an increasing authoritarian streak of a Prime Minister spoilt by solid popular support, and increasing exploitation of developing economic and other opportunities by those around him, the protests may be a good opportunity to stop the earlier necessary rebalancing of the system before it tips to the other extreme.
It takes cool heads, common sense, patriotism and magnanimity on both sides to recognize this as an historic moment of new balance, make the necessary adjustments in positions and expectations, and bury the hatchets. At a time when Western democracies, especially in Europe, are trying to become more tolerant in response to their increasingly multicultural societies, it would be ironic for places from where migrants to Europe originate, like Turkey, to become less tolerant towards part of their own populations. Moreover, Turkey wants tourists, many of whom drink, or are uncovered women, or both. Why should it restrict those options for its own citizens who may want to live that way, and may have been living that way since the end of the Ottoman Empire?
When I was growing up in Greece in the 1960s I felt the pressure of the church and the pious society not to do any work on Sundays, fast on certain days, etc. I also remember the pro-Western dictatorship that we had at the time. Things may have not turned out perfectly for Greece, as it became evident recently, but the emancipation from the church, the ending of the post-civil war right-left divide, and the expansion of the secular middle classes were not by themselves bad things. What was apparently bad was the absolute populism, paternalism and sheer bad public management of people like Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who may be the unintended model for Prime Minister Erdogan.
Turkey is not Greece, and Mr. Erdogan is not the late Mr. Papandreou, so I will not insist on this analogy beyond the educational parallelism of the above few sentences. What is clear to me is that it would be a great pity if Turkey missed the opportunity provided by this explosion of sentiment by part of its population to rebalance itself, become a more mutually tolerant society, and set itself on a solid path of stability and prosperity for the next fifty years.
The Hague and Brussels, 6 June 2013
Syria, as expected, was a top agenda item for the leaders addressing the UN General Assembly. While there was broad agreement that violence should end from all sides, there were disagreements on apportioning blame. The deployment of an Arab peace force was proposed (Tunisia), while others insisted on diplomatic efforts among Arab, regional and global powers that would prevent external military intervention (Egypt). Good governance, justice, respect for human rights and the rule of law were identified as the main elements of democracy that could eventually, with sustained effort, lead a country from poverty to prosperity, and would ensure peaceful relations between countries (EU, Ghana, Japan, Kenya, UK, US, Zambia).
In direct or indirect reference to the violent protests caused by the slanderous video about the Prophet Mohammed, several leaders addressed the apparent contradiction among the principles of freedom of speech, tolerance and respect of the religious beliefs of others. Some of them stressed the importance of tolerance and avoidance of violence as paramount (Liberia). Others pointed to the need of preventing abuses of freedom of expression, when it blatantly disrespects the religious beliefs of others and sows hatred, while at the same time stressing the peaceful nature of Islam and the need for peaceful protests (Yemen). The widening gap between rich and poor in the world was pointed out as a main cause of the ideological conflicts and violence (Iran).
On development issues, several leaders stressed the importance of implementing the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference for a more sustainable and equitable future (UN Secretary-General, UN General Assembly President, Brazil, Nauru). At the same time, it was significant to accelerate efforts to achieve the MDGs, especially in Africa (Australia South Africa). It was suggested that poverty and climate change could be addressed in tandem, so one does not have to choose between them (Mexico). Moreover, the connection was pointed out between sustainable development and peace and security (UNGA President, Cyprus). Serious concerns were expressed about the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (China, Norway), as well as about the nuclear activities of Iran and possible responses to them (Israel, Russia, US).
There was a broad recognition of the importance of multilateralism and the role of the United Nations, often accompanied by calls for UN reform, in different directions: to give emerging powers the place they deserve, especially on the Security Council (France, Germany, South Africa); towards more democracy within international fora, away from the control of a few powers (Iran); or towards full implementation of commitments made and decisions taken within the UN (Poland).
Only indicative references have been made above to the many speeches and the numerous issues brought up by world leaders at this year’s UN General Assembly. But of course this global village gathering has no decision-making purpose. It mainly allows expositions of country and leader positions on the global stage, in a ceremonial but useful way for reference and agenda setting. Of more practical relevance are side meetings of other bodies like the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, special initiatives like the Secretary-General’s “Sustainable Energy for All”. And of course very important are bilateral meetings that happen on the sidelines of the General Assembly, thanks to the simultaneous presence of so many dignitaries from around the world. Such meetings take place even between leaders (or their aides) whose countries are not on friendly terms. This is by itself a very important function that the UN fulfills, as the meeting place of the – still quite dysfunctional – human family.
Ixelles, 29 September 2012
As is the custom, at around this time every year the chiefs of the human tribes and agglomerations make their way to New York, for the annual meeting of our global village. They come in their fancy clothes and their motorcades (pity the New York motorists) and they are received by their convener, the “Secular Pope” (replace “Pope” with “Grand Mufti” or “High Priest” etc, as you feel appropriate), also known as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, together with the General Assembly President.
This year the gathering is taking place in the midst of, among other dramatic events, continuing mayhem in Syria; often violent protests in the Muslim world against a US film insulting the Prophet Mohammed; wild scenarios over Iran’s nuclear fuel processing; tensions between Japan and China (and Taiwan) over a small group of disputed islands; several hot spots in Africa, like Mali, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia; further evidence of climate change and a looming new food crisis; and ongoing global financial problems most dramatically manifested in the debt crises in the countries of Southern Europe. The human family seems to be as dysfunctional as ever…
In this blog and the next one(s) under the same title I will try to extract some elements from the many speeches that are being made at the United Nations General Assembly these days. The emphasis of my search, although not necessarily of the speeches themselves, will be on elements of substance that point to some direction (i.e. vision and leadership) and recommend policies and actions (i.e. delivery and not just talk). Let’s see what fish we will catch this year…
For this post, I am focusing on statements made at the beginning of the General Assembly’s “General Debate”/VIP segment, on 25 September 2012, by the UN Secretary-General, the President of Brazil and the President of the US. They all touched on most current issues mentioned above, from their respective angles, but I won’t repeat all that here.
It is interesting to note the large amount of time President Obama dedicated to the violence caused in response to the anti-Mohammed film, which formed the beginning, end and spine of his speech. He condemned and threatened the perpetrators of violence, specifically mentioning the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya. At the same time, he criticized the film at the centre of the protests, while explaining the sanctity and greater benefits of freedom of speech. He called on all concerned to address honestly and constructively the tensions between the West and an Arab World that is moving towards democracy. He also explained the approach adopted by his Administration around the world, especially towards the Muslim and Arab world, including the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and, in 2014, from Afghanistan, the welcoming by the US of political change in the Arab world including Egypt, the continuing efforts to resolve peacefully the situations regarding Iran and Syria, and the importance of implementing the two-state solution in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a principled, proud, determined but indirectly humble, subtly self-critical and definitely more-cooperative-than-usual US attitude. It was an attitude certainly appreciated through regular applause by the UN General Assembly, and will hopefully generate positive reciprocal action around the world. It remains to be seen whether it will also resonate with the US public in the November Presidential election.
President Rousseff also condemned the religion-based provocation and violence, and stressed the need to build on the Alliance of Civilizations project initiated by Turkey and Spain some years ago. Equal rights and the empowerment of women was again central to the speech of the Brazilian President, as was the global economic crisis and the need to follow-up on the outcome of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. She called on developed nations in particular to rise to their responsibilities, keeping in mind the possible adverse effects that policies they introduce may have on emerging economies, like the unbalancing of exchange rates when placing too much emphasis on monetary policy, and stressed the importance of cooperation. She also enumerated measures that Brazil is taking from its part including strict control over public spending, accompanied by a simultaneous increase in investments in infrastructure, education and social inclusion. It was a speech by a leader of a country in the ascendant, with increased confidence, vision and results to show for innovative policies, strengthening the argument for a more central role, including on the UN Security Council, for Brazil.
Secretary-General Ban asked the world’s moderate majority to end its silence and speak out against intolerance, which he saw as being at the heart of the violence caused by the US film that he criticized strongly. He urged for more leadership to be shown in tackling the global challenge of climate change, and put forward sustainability and the green economy as offering compelling opportunities for jobs, growth, innovation and long-term stability.
Ixelles, 25 September 2012