Turkey trip a success despite stumbles

Winston Peters’ trip to Turkey has made headlines for all the wrong reasons, but the visit is part of a more successful diplomatic push to ease fears following the Christchurch terror attack, Sam Sachdeva writes.

In an ordinary week, the news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was finally making a much-anticipated visit to China would be the headline foreign policy development by some distance.

Yet while Ardern’s trip has been drastically reduced in scale in a post-Christchurch environment, her deputy’s time in Turkey last week still looms large - for its perceived failures as much as any successes.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters headed to Istanbul at the request of the Turkish government to attend a special meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as it discussed the Christchurch terror attack.

Peters headed over in part to soothe the fears of Muslim-majority countries about the scale of white supremacist views in New Zealand, but his trip was sold as offensive as well as defensive in purpose.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of shooting footage recorded by the attacker during political rallies, coupled with his warning that any Kiwis who went to Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would “return in coffins”, set diplomatic relations on edge.

Ahead of Peters’ trip, Ardern said her minister would “confront” Erdogan’s comments and set the record straight, face to face.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has continued to use footage of the Christchurch terror attack, but seems to have toned down anti-NZ sentiment. Photo: Getty Images.

But Peters failed to challenge Erdogan over his comments or his use of the attack footage, telling media in Turkey the issues had been addressed and would not occur again - a claim undermined by the president again using an edited excerpt at an event hours after their meeting.

That embarrassment was compounded by Peters appearing to fall asleep at the OIC meeting as Erdogan spoke (something he has since denied, claiming to be in a state of “deep contemplation”).

Where Ardern and Peters fell down was in raising expectations over the trip, leading many to expect a “shirtfronting” of Erdogan similar to that delivered by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

In reality, New Zealand was always unlikely to throw its weight around, while it was optimistic to expect a nationalist leader facing a damaging result in local elections to ease back on his campaign rhetoric.

Peters’ suggestion on Monday that the situation had improved because Erdogan was now showing a slimmed-down version of the shooting was also unhelpful, even if he and Ardern subsequently insisted any display was unacceptable.

That is not to say the trip was not a success, however.

Winning over Muslim nations

Erdogan’s OIC speech was a distinct improvement on his initial sentiments, saying Ardern and her government “should be an example to all world leaders” for their reaction and the empathy on display.

He followed that up with a live interview on Sunday (local time), saying that New Zealanders could not seen as terrorists - remarks which would provide some reassurance to any Kiwis planning to travel to annual Gallipoli commemorations.

“They organised memorial services, they gathered at the scene of the incident and left flowers to pay tribute to the victims. These are acts of humanity. We can't ignore these acts of humanity.”

That gels with Peters’ claim that a number of OIC ministers had been “weeping and sobbing” at the demonstration of goodwill towards the Muslim victims, and validates what has been a wider push to reassure Muslim nations of New Zealand’s safety.

Ardern’s speech to Parliament after the attack was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Indonesian, Malay, Urdu, and Bangla, while MFAT has been distributing a number of subtitled social media videos about officials’ efforts to help the victims and hold the attacker to justice.

It has been an effort aided immensely by Ardern’s displays of empathy and kindness, as well as those from the wider community (especially Kiwi Muslims).

There also appears to have been some scheduling luck: Peters' Turkey trip was preceded by a pre-existing engagement in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, while he will this week head to Malaysia - another Muslim-majority country - for what was again a pre-arranged trip.

Wrinkles remain

There are still a few wrinkles to sort out - for instance, Erdogan’s insistence that the attack was not an individual act of terror but an orchestrated event.

He has expressed confidence that New Zealand will bring the perpetrators (plural) to justice, but how will he and other Muslim leaders react if it is determined to be a lone wolf attack, as is currently believed?

Then there is Peters himself. Nodding off after a long trip would be understandable as an isolated incident, but this does not appear to be a one-off.

The Deputy Prime Minister also appeared to be close to sleep when Ardern met refugees and migrants in Christchurch the day after the attack, as well as at an intelligence and security meeting in late February where the threat of white extremism was discussed.

Of course, the foreign affairs and deputy prime minister roles Peters holds would wear out most people - but if he is finding the punishing nature of overseas travel too difficult, he and Ardern may need to reconsider which positions are best for him.

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