By inviting world leaders known for imprisoning journalists, targeting civilians, and employing dictator-style politics onto the stage, the 7th United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) Forum in Baku could have undermined its intentions of dialogue and social inclusion.
The United Nations Alliance of Civilisations global forum took place in Baku in April this year, and I was fortunate enough to get golden-ticket attendance. The Alliance of Civilizations is an initiative of the UN proposed and spearheaded by the former President of the Government of Spain, that was co-sponsored by Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Alliance primarily focuses on action against extremism, but also on defusing tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. After deciding that an opportunity to speak at such an event was not one to be missed, I headed to Azerbaijan last week and prepared for what I knew would be a jam-packed few days networking with people from across the globe. Little did I know I would experience President Erdoğan’s passionate speechmaking in the flesh.
The event did not come without controversy. The 7th UNAOC was titled “Living Together in inclusive societies: A challenge and a goal.” I would say that given the speechmakers that decided to grace onlookers with their presence this concept of social inclusion was more of a challenge, with no end goal in sight.
Imagine my surprise when the President of Azerbaijan himself, Ilham Aliyev, went on stage to give the opening remarks. His speech focused on the theme of the forum, which aimed to showcase the tireless work of researchers and NGOs to treat social inclusion as “a crucial premise for peace and sustainable development.” The president began by thanking, among others, President Erdoğan for being an instrumental figure in the establishment of that year’s forum. More on that later.
The controversy was not lost on me. As I tweeted neutral images of Aliyev on the stage, I was faced with an understandable backlash from Twitter – #BoycottUNAOC filled my feed more than #UNAOCBaku2016. Before readers agree, I truly believe in engaging in dialogue over any embargo. Plus, I had to remain neutral for fear of being kicked out (I was there on business representing the organisation I work for) and even as I write this article I worry that I will not be allowed into Turkey this weekend on yet another business trip that aims to gloss over the egos of would-be dictators.
I didn’t need to read in-depth about President Aliyev to know that this whole thing was a bit hypocritical. An Azerbaijani friend of mine, and arguably one of the most dedicated and interesting individuals I have ever been blessed to know, is a living case in point that Aliyev is hardly the figurehead of good presidency: as a dissident reporter, he has been in and out of jail and is now barred from entering his home country. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project crowned Aliyev “corrupt person of the year” in 2012. The Azerbaijani government avoids straightening out its record on democracy and human rights, leaving people full of grievances, and even pushing some to turn to extremist views largely thanks to injustice, poverty, failing rule of law, and rampant corruption.
Presidents Aliyev and Erdoğan have a lot in common, then. This is unsurprising, given the ties between the two countries that go back the early days of Azerbaijan’s state formation. In the 1990s the newly elected Popular Front government and its leader Abulfaz Elchibey brought a secular-nationalist ideology that Elchibey adopted from Turkey. The two countries have influenced each other tremendously and worked closely to stamp out supporters of exiled Turkish religious figure Fetullah Gülen in Azerbaijan, following Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Park protests. It should come as no surprise that Aliyev would thank Erdoğan – beyond the usual UN formalities.
As Aliyev left the plinth, I watched other leaders take centre stage, such as United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations Nassir Al-Nasser and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, to discuss the importance of social inclusivity and counter-polarisation. All of them, too, thanked Erdoğan – but this had to have been those “formalities” I spoke of. Surely, even mentioning “inclusive societies” and Erdoğan in the same speech was a joke.
Lo and behold, and still to my surprise as at this point I did not know that the Turkish President was in the same hall as me, he arrives on stage. I experienced a mixture of awe and disgust – although mostly the latter.
I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details of what he said. I didn’t record it all, just pieces, and I certainly didn’t take notes. I was too busy staring – staring and listening at this charismatic leader of the Turkish Republic who, indeed, does sound so very convincing. There were a few golden details, however, that I managed to pull from his speech. My favourite phrases are emphasised, and I trust the irony is not lost on readers.
“Unfortunately we still couldn’t overcome entrenched prejudices and the understanding that makes discrimination among people based on their beliefs, origins and cultures. We couldn’t exert the effort expected of us in the fight against radical movements and terrorism that these radical movements nurture […] We couldn’t convince the entire world that one of the most dissuasive weapons in the fight against the causes of violence is to develop mutual understanding and dialogue by getting beyond our differences. We fell short of replacing polarization with a culture of conciliation. We couldn’t make prevalent the social understanding which considers cultural, ethnic and religious differences as a richness rather than a threat and which prioritises harmony and tolerance in every sphere.”
“Today we are living in a world where 60 million people are forced out of their homes due to clashes in their countries. The journey of hope, set out on by these innocent people,most of whom are children and women, ends up in dark waters even before starting. And those who can reach their destinations are marginalised or approached with doubt.
“State terrorism is being conducted in Syria, and there a terrorist is in office. There is a terrorist that kills his people with barrel bombs, artilleries and tanks. How about those who welcome these terrorist on red carpets; aren’t they responsible as well?”
As the conference came to an end it became more and more obvious to anyone there that it had been more concerned with violent extremism: social inclusivity was a smiling mask for a hidden motive. As ‘terrorism’ takes not just the conference stage but the global stage it is clear that leaders such as Erdoğan and Aliyev are keener on pursuing their domestic attack on terror (according to whatever their respective lose definitions of the term are) than making any steps towards “living together in inclusive societies.”
Perhaps before his despotic rise to President of Turkey, Erdoğan’s support for such an initiative could have been commendable. However, given the current situation in Turkey and the atrocities committed against the Kurds, his attendance at the UNAOC, even his involvement, undermines the initiative. The stage at the Baku Conference Centre became a microcosm of what is happening on the world stage. As Erdoğan continues to commit crimes domestically against his own citizens, he talks with vigour, trying to keep face in front of an international audience that looks on and acts as though he is still a crucial global partner. Again, I wouldn’t boycott the Forum, in as much as I wouldn’t boycott my mother country itself. Engagement is more fruitful. But, it’s a shame that otherwise beneficial initiatives such as the UNAOC allow despots like Aliyev and Erdoğan to launch into a monologue, rather than engage in dialogue.