This year's U.N. General Assembly session in New York featured a statehood showdown between the Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans and a face off between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the backs of Western diplomats rushing for the exits during his address to delegates. But today new details are emerging about an under-the-radar, honest-to-goodness fight that broke out on Friday between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security detail and U.N. security guards outside the General Assembly hall.
How It Happened On Friday, several unnamed sources told the Inner City Press--a U.N. news site recently profiled in The New Yorker--that Erdogan had been "touched" and several people had been injured in a fight between the Turkish delegation and U.N. security guards. The site reported that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is not known for his panicked sprints, had even broken into a "rare run, accompanied by U.N. Safety and Security chief Gregory Starr, out of the North Lawn building and on to First Avenue in the rain, crossing it toward Turkey's Mission to the U.N." Over the next 24 hours, numerous Turkish news sites (including Sabah, above) picked up the story, stressing that Ban had offered a personal apology to Erdogan for the incident. "I'm afraid there was an unfortunate incident," Sabah quoted Erdogan as saying. Israeli Minister of Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein, who witnessed the scuffle, was more blunt, telling Ynet that the violence was "like a scene out of a movie."
The ugly incident has come into clearer focus today. At Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch explains that the fight erupted as Erdogan and his entourage rushed from a meeting to the U.N. chamber in order to hear Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speak, only to be stopped at an exit near the hall and told they could not enter. "The Turkish guards demanded that their prime minister be allowed to pass, and allegedly pushed the U.N. security guards," Lynch notes. "The U.N. guards pushed back, and the Turks apparently began swinging." In short order, U.N. police called for help, radios blared "security breach, security breach," and reinforcements rushed to the scene. Lynch adds that one U.N. employee was sent to the hospital with broken ribs. Inner City Press is reporting that, in response to the incident, several U.N. security officials have been banned from speaking to the press and assigned to paid "modified duty." A spokesman for Ban Ki-moon doesn't confirm the report but tells Inner City Press that "unfortunate misunderstandings" with "security officials of [a] member delegation ... have been satisfactorily resolved."
Geopolitical Implications A brawl at the U.N., of course, is no ordinary brawl. In an interview with Inner City Press, an anonymous U.N. official drew a parallel between the tussle and Turkey's more assertive presence on the world stage, especially on issues like Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. "A new muscular foreign policy--even inside the UN building?" the official asked. A U.N. security officer complains that he and his fellow guards are "just pawns to Ban Ki-moon," adding that "Ban will do anything to avoid a confrontation with the Turks." Another asks, "If he won't even defend his own people, how can he pretend to defend civilians?" Meanwhile, a diplomat outside the Security Council adds that the international community hasn't done enough to "beef up the capabilities of U.N. Security." Or maybe some security guards just let their tempers get the best of them?
Historical Precedent A brawl at the U.N. General Assembly is also not a new phenomenon. Just last year, Sudanese delegates fought with New York City police officers when the diplomats took issue with going through metal detectors at a hotel, causing one detective to injure his thumb. Nor is this the first time Erdogan and his entourage have resorted to fisticuffs. In 2009, at an annual meeting of President Clinton's Global Initiative, fighting broke out between Turkish and American security officials as President Obama prepared to leave the event and Erdogan arrived. According to the Washington Times, the Turkish press reported at the time that Erdogan may have even grabbed a U.S. security agent to stop him from throwing a punch. This time around, Erdogan appears to have let his security detail do the fighting.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.