On Wednesday, under the crystal chandeliers of Vienna’s ornate Hofberg Palace, the prime minister of Turkey delivered a speech in which he called Zionism “a crime against humanity” — equating it with fascism, and, for good measure, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Following his remarks, Erdogan was thanked, and applauded.
The occasion was a February 27–28 meeting of an outfit called the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, launched in 2005 by former secretary general Kofi Annan for the purpose of “bridging divides.” Among those attending this latest conclave of the Alliance were U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon; director general Irina Bokova of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and such celebrities of the diplomatic circuit as Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
No surprise, then, that it was left to a private monitoring group, Geneva-based U.N. Watch, to blow the whistle on Erdogan’s remarks. U.N. Watch, noting that Zionism is a movement founded in 1897 for Jewish self-determination, called on Ban and other prominent participants in this U.N. Alliance to repudiate Erdogan’s slander.
American secretary of state John Kerry, arriving Friday on a previously scheduled trip to Turkey, called Erdogan’s comments “objectionable.” It would be good to hear a more full-throated condemnation from a great many world leaders, as well as an apology from the Austrian authorities who hosted and helped subsidize this gathering. Austrians, more than most, ought to be acutely aware that Erdogan’s speech was dripping with the same prejudice that produced the U.N. General Assembly’s 1975 resolution declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism.” That noxious resolution was approved during the tenure of former U.N. secretary general Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian, who was later exposed — to his country’s shame — as having been complicit in Nazi war crimes.
In 1991, under pressure from the U.S., the U.N. finally repealed that resolution. Now, the noble-sounding Alliance of Civilizations, serviced, sheltered, and praised by the U.N., is providing a platform for similar bigotry.
So, what exactly is this U.N. Alliance of Civilizations?
Headquartered in midtown Manhattan, with a lineage that tracks back to the government of Iran, the Alliance can best be understood as a glorified slush fund, run chiefly by a number of Muslim-majority countries — Turkey and Qatar in particular — busy leveraging the U.N. label. Officially, the Alliance advertises itself as promoting global “respect and tolerance.” In practice, it functions more as a matchmaking service between the left wing of Western politics and the anti-Western actors and agenda of a dominant lobbying bloc in the U.N. General Assembly, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The Alliance of Civilizations was grandfathered by former secretary general Kofi Annan out of a previous project, the U.N.’s Dialogue of Civilizations, proposed in 1998 by Iran’s then-president Mohammad Khatami. Annan jumped at the idea, and the U.N. General Assembly decided that 2001 would be the Year of the Dialogue of Civilizations. To run this enterprise, Annan picked a veteran Italian U.N. official named Giandomenico Picco. Picco had served previously as a U.N. negotiator for the release of Western hostages held in Beirut, which involved bringing what were effectively U.S. ransom offers to the mullahs in Tehran. The Dialogue was introduced as a one-year project but then dragged on for years, producing a jargon-filled report in 2001, logging a lot of air miles, and holding a meeting in Tehran in 2004, before finally fading out.
In 2005, Annan revived the project as the Alliance of Civilizations. He announced that it had two new sponsors: Turkey, under Erdogan; and Spain, which in the aftermath of the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid had just voted into power the Socialist party. This new Alliance had plenty in common with the old Khatami-inspired Dialogue. For one, Annan appointed Khatami himself to a “high-level group of eminent persons to guide the initiative.” To this day, Khatami remains one of the 20 members of the Alliance’s advisory board, which includes representatives from around the globe but is dominated by nine members from Muslim-majority states — among them, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran.
In 2006, the Alliance served as a vehicle for Khatami to visit the U.S. at a useful juncture for Iran. In the summer of that year, the U.N. Security Council produced the first of what is by now a series of resolutions meant to stop Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, and gave Iran an August 31 deadline – which Iran ignored. About that same time, Khatami, as one of the Alliance’s guiding experts, got a visa to enter the U.S. to attend an Alliance meeting held September 5–6 in New York. He parlayed that visit into a two-week road show through a number of American cities, slamming U.S. policy toward Iran as he went, and appearing as a guest in Washington at a fund-raising dinner for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Until 2009, the U.S. government had steered clear of the Alliance of Civilizations — mindful, perhaps, of its Iranian roots and other troubling ties. But when President Obama took office in 2009, his administration quickly decided to join the Alliance’s “Group of Friends” — a collection of countries and international organizations, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, that actively support and promote the Alliance. During Obama’s first presidential trip to the Middle East, in April 2009, he dropped in on an Alliance forum in Istanbul.
How is it that the otherwise obscure Alliance seems to attract so much top brass? The Alliance doesn’t occupy a regular position within the sprawling U.N. system. Instead, it inhabits the amorphous category of an “initiative” of the secretary general, managed as a sort of private club within the U.N. and bankrolled by its own special, voluntary trust fund. Its declared mission is so diffuse that it could mean almost anything: bridging divides, with a focus on education, youth, media and migration. This means that while the Alliance enjoys a U.N. label and broad access to U.N. services, including diplomatically privileged procurement and travel arrangements, it is also designed to operate outside the usual constraints of U.N. policy and budget debates.
Officially, the Alliance runs on a relatively small budget (by U.N. standards). With a secretariat staff of 14, it spent about $4 million last year, according to an Alliance spokesman. A list of trust-fund contributors provided by the Alliance shows that in any given year the number of countries giving money has never topped 30. The list does not show anything from the U.S. (The State Department did not respond to a question about whether the U.S. has donated any money.) The chief donors since 2005 have been Spain and Turkey, co-sponsors of the Alliance, as well as Qatar, whose representative is now taking over from Spain’s as head of the Alliance. Last year, Saudi Arabia — home to the OIC — chipped in $1 million.
But such sums are merely what’s visible in the highly summarized public accounts. The Alliance itself notes in its report on “costs and funding” that the trust fund does not give the full picture. The Alliance also accepts contributions in kind from countries, international organizations, foundations, corporations, and so on. That is how the Alliance is able to convene lavish global forums such as the jamboree at which Erdogan just spoke in Vienna. It was sponsored by a substantial list of donors, including, for example, the BMW Group, the City of Vienna, and the OPEC Fund for International Development.
It’s just possible that for the most active members of the Alliance, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, the most important assets of this “initiative” are neither the money in the trust fund nor its actual products. The real value of this initiative is the license to coopt the machinery of the U.N. for these actors to stage their own show. U.S. taxpayers fork over billions every year to sustain the basic institution of the UN. But for the modest price of $4.08 million, the grand total of what Turkey has paid in to the Alliance of Civilizations since its founding in 2005, Erdogan was able to stand on the stage of a palace in Vienna, godfather of a very special U.N. gathering that was once just a gleam in Khatami’s eye and, before a world audience, denounce the Jews.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.