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Freedom of Expression: Why it matters to UNESCO, now more than ever

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In just 5 days time, at their 202nd session, the Executive Board of UNESCO will begin the voting process to elect their new leader.By the 12th of October, the nomination will be confirmed by the board and in November, the General Conference will appoint the new leader.

While the election of the Director-General of UNESCO has largely remained uncovered in world news, the fact remains that this is a highly important world event. The Director-General (DG) of UNESCO is the Organization’s Chief Administrative Officer.

The main objective of UNESCO is to contribute to peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture and communication in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms. In simple terms, UNESCO is one of the most committed champions of both freedom of speech and expression. At least that is what they state in their mandate.

In the wake of recent atrocities such as terrorist attacks, democratic election fraud, censorship, civil wars and refugee crises, protecting both the freedom of speech and expression are more important now than ever. Just yesterday, via IFEX (the International Freedom of Expression Exchange), over 170 non-governmental organizations called on the UNESCO Executive Board to consider commitment to freedom of expression in nominating the new DG.

Perhaps a reason for their urgent imploration is due to the fact that several of the DG candidates up for nomination are emerging from nations, backed from regimes, that are the very antithesis of freedom of speech and expression.

Most concerning is Egypt’s nomination candidate, Moushira Khattab. Khattab is a former politician and diplomat, she held positions such as the Minister of Family & Population for Egypt and served as ambassador to South Africa.What’s worrying is that Khattab has been nominated by Egypt’s ruthless el-Sisi regime.

Since the el-Sisi regime took power, it seems as things are worse than ever, with Egypt rapidly devolving into a totalitarian police (or military) state.

Here are some of the highlights from the past nine months alone:

Since May 24, 114 websites have been blocked including Huffington Post, Al Jazeera and Medium. Even voice calls made over whatsapp, facetime and skype are being blocked. Hundreds have disappeared and been tortured during the brutal repression since the government took action on dissenters. Despite calls from NGOs and activists such as Amnesty International, the government has refused to curb the brutality. More journalists are in prison than ever previously recorded. Self-censorship is rife and the Egyptian media has become a mouthpiece of the state. Discriminated Nubian’s have faced more obstacles to returning to their homeland as the land they were promised has been reclassified for military or business use. Police are imprisoning homosexuals for attempting to use apps such as Grindr. The police are enacting ancient laws combined with new technology to make this easier.

Numerous Middle-East experts reported to the US Senate that its relationship with Egypt needs to be reconsidered. President el-Sisi signed a law that heavily restricts the operations of more than 47,000 NGOs. Amid numerous bombings and attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the government has failed to act nor made any attempt to bring the attackers to justice. As education standards drop and unemployment rises, numbers of children working on the streets of Cairo has soared.

The general consensus is that the state of the country has hit an all-time low (in recent memory). International publications have declared Egypt’s revolution as a failure and even gone so far to say that the country’s extreme repression is providing the perfect breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists.

Despite this lack of progress, it’s perhaps quite surprising that Egypt putting forth a candidate for the head of UNESCO, has largely gone uncovered by the international press.

According to UNESCO, it’s aim is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information”.

From the points made above, it’s clear that Egypt and its government has been failing on all fronts. Whether it’s clamping down on free speech, neglecting education, torturing prisoners, jailing homosexuals or marginalizing ethnic groups, Egypt is hardly a suitable nation to offer up a leader.

The Director-General of UNESCO is perhaps the second most prestigious diplomatic post in the world. Second only to the Secretary-General of the UN itself.

UNESCO wields considerable influence worldwide and works with governments and NGOs to achieve its goals. With Egypt’s track record of shutting down and raiding NGOs, it doesn’t bode well for future success.

Regardless of Khattab’s credentials and personal beliefs, the risk of her becoming a mouthpiece for the Egyptian dictator, el-Sisi is unacceptable.

It’s widely known that Egypt is currently in a financial crisis and is itself, a major recipient of UNESCO funds.

Egypt has spent millions on a campaign for UNESCO and yet its own country is in a crisis. Perhaps if Egypt really believed in UNESCO’s work, it could invest in education, gender equality and freedom of press at home. Working with their own citizens first would show their commitment to these noble activities before attempting to lead an organization with countries such as Sweden, Norway, and France.

Egypt has attempted to run for UNESCO on 4 previous occasions, most recently with Farak Hosny in 2009. A well liked candidate, Hosny was unable to stir support from the African nations and with a strong lobby by the US and Israel failed to make the votes. Hosny lost out to the incumbent Director-General, Irina Bokova.

In this election, like the others, Egypt has attempted to position itself as the defacto ‘African’ candidate. This has been heavily criticized and declared as a convenience by several nations who have decided to back other candidates.

The “AFRICAN” candidate

According to the UNESCO executive board electoral group Egypt is a member of the Arab group yet Egypt is now stating it is a member of the African group and is the Africa candidate. Should Egypt win the election for the post of UNESCO director general then by the concept of geographical rotation Africa will now need to wait another 25+years for another shot at being the Director General of UNESCO.

http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/GBS/38GC/pdf/Members_by_electoral_groups_2015_2017_03.pdf

NGO’s have been critical of the candidature of Khattab and leading organizations such a Paris based Reporters Without Borders (RWB), or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), an international non-profitnon-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. The organization, with a head office in Paris, France, has consultant status at the United Nations.  There report on Egypt can be seen here.

The UNESCO election will ask the 58 members of the executive board to select a leader to move UNESCO from it’s political and financial crisis. Many see that this election as the “last chance” for UNESCO.

The candidate from Lebanon has been vocal about supporting the freedom of press and to preserve the integrity of UNESCO. A well known UNESCO insider seems to be a favoured candidate ahead of Egypt.

Candidates from France and Qatar seem to the main contenders for the post based on initial investigations from inside UNESCO, but this does not seem to stop Egypt from using every trick in the book in an attempt to gain this highly important post.

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Middle East

What is the public sphere today in Turkey?

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The concept of public sphere, which was started to be examined in Europe in the 1960s, has different meanings according to different perspectives, as a definite definition cannot be made today, and this situation creates important discussion topics about the use of such spaces.

Long debated the definition of public space in Europe, in Turkey also began to affect 1980”l year. After the 1980 coup, some communities, which were kept out of sight, fearing that the Republic project would be harmed, demanded the recognition of their ethnic and cultural identities. Thus the concept of the public sphere in Turkey, especially since the early 1990s to be addressed in various academic publications, use and began to discuss political issues.

Especially in the past years, the public sphere debates on the headscarf issue were discussed from various angles. The debate started with Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticism of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who did not invite his wife to a NATO dinner, saying “Dolmabahçe is not a public space”, and the President of the Council of Higher Education, Prof.Dr. Erdoğan Teziç; He responded by emphasizing that the public sphere is not a “ geographical definition ” but a functional concept.

Before defining the public sphere, the understanding that shows that the definition of space in the Ottoman Empire was shaped as less private, private, very private and very very private is still one of the biggest reasons for the definition of the public sphere. While expressing, it reminds that he entered the Ottoman literature in a different way in the 19th century. Thinkers who indicate the association of the public sphere with the state in general express it as the sphere that is related to the state, not the “public”. “When you say ‘public’, the state comes to mind immediately; We mean something like government administration, its organs, organizations, officials, or activities, an official domain that is owned or run under state control. However, as Habermas said, the public sphere is above all the sphere in which the public opinion is formed in our social life ”.

As citizens of the city, we observe that some projects have spread to the spaces defined as public space due to the fact that today’s public space and public space concepts have not been defined precisely and construction activities have increased due to the anxiety of rent.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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