A TURKISH Cypriot acquaintance recently reminded me of an important truth about the Turkish Cypriots. He said that until 1974 fear of persecution was the dominant emotion among Turkish Cypriots, but not any more, he added as we surveyed people happily going about their business in the healthy pursuit of wealth and fun in the hustle and bustle of early evening in Turkish Nicosia.
Fear has also dominated Greek Cypriot life. A historical fear of the Turks is part of the Greek psyche but there is also the fear and distrust of modern Turkey borne of her occupation of north Cyprus since 1974. Turkey’s policies and actions are a constant preoccupation and her allegedly expansionist designs are castigated ad nauseam.
Leaving aside the nervous breakdown Turkey is having at the moment under President Erdogan, the western orientated secular Republic of Turkey set up by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 with peace at home and peace abroad as its motto, should not have been a source of fear for Greek Cypriots, and if this did not quite work for Cyprus in 1974, the blame lies with the attitude of the nationalists after independence in 1960.
They ignored the oldest principle in international law – that treaties are binding and should be carried out in good faith: pacta sunt servanda. They sent out the wrong signals that Cyprus’ independence treaty was a stepping stone to union with Greece and all hell broke loose in 1974 when irresponsible putschists actually took a stupid step forward in that direction.
My task here however is not to go on about the past but to ponder the moral arguments in favour of a federal solution in terms that are intelligible to the average Greek Cypriot – head and heart! The importance of this cannot be emphasised too strongly since a federal solution for a small island involving not just loss of property by individuals, but the loss of long-established communities, as well as the majority communities’ deeply held identification with the whole island, is a big ask.
A moral justification for a federal solution is essential out of respect for the Greek Cypriot community who will ultimately need to be persuaded in a referendum that a federal solution is not imposed by military might but is morally the right course for the whole of Cyprus.
It is not good enough for the Turkish side simply to assert possession of part of Cypriot territory and the military power to retain it, as a justification for a federal solution, let alone for adopting maximalist claims on Greek Cypriot land. The Turkish Cypriots must guard against greed and avarice and avoid becoming like the obnoxious Israeli settlers who shamelessly grab Palestinian land in the occupied territories on the West Bank in Palestine.
The legal and moral basis for a federal solution derives from international humanitarian law and the realities of internal flight in times of armed conflict. International humanitarian law recognises that people displaced owing to a well-founded fear of persecution deserve protection since they cannot look to the state from which they fear persecution for protection. In principle this applies to cases where people move to safe havens internally as they do where people are outside the country of their nationality.
In 1974 the Turkish Cypriots living in south Cyprus fled to north Cyprus because the Cypriot state not only failed to protect them from persecution, but was itself engaged in their persecution; and the Greek Cypriots fled to south Cyprus in fear of persecution in the wake of the advancing Turkish army. Each community sought refuge in safe havens internally owing a well-founded fear of persecution and each has been unable or unwilling to return to the pre-1974 state of affairs.
The Turkish Cypriot community is not prepared to re-avail itself the protection of the state of Cyprus as presently constituted. It is unwilling to return to a state of affairs in which the Turkish Cypriots lived in fear as they did before 1974. Given the nature of the persecution they suffered previously when they were deliberately harassed and attacked as a matter of state policy, without a word of dissent from any quarter – public, press, parliament, or the courts – the moral case for a federation from the point of view of the Turkish Cypriots is compelling.
But how compelling does it seem to the Greek Cypriots? Broadly speaking there are three schools of thought amongst Greek Cypriots with considerable overlap between the first two.
First, there are those who are in denial about the past persecution of the Turkish Cypriots. For them the question of federation does not arise at all since the condition precedent for it – fear of persecution – on their version of events, was contrived by the Turkish side. According to this school it has always been Turkey’s plan at an opportune moment to partition Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriots are pawns in an expansionist game played by Turkey.
Next, there are those who could not care less about any persecution suffered by the Turkish Cypriots. They believe that the Turkish Cypriots are historical interlopers whose presence on the island is inherently unwelcome to Greek Cyprus. According to this school, federation is an anathema and a surrender of lands that have been historically Greek for millennia.
Finally, there are those – I think the vast majority – who are prepared to accept that Turkish Cypriot fears of persecution are well founded; that this fear caused them to flee to north Cyprus in 1974; that the circumstances that made them leave were so compelling that they cannot be expected to return as a community to their former homes; and that consequently a federation is the only pragmatic way forward that is morally sustainable. However, they also fervently believe that for a federation to be viable, it has to be fair and take account the concerns of the majority community and the rights of displaced Greek Cypriots.
The moral case for a federation is made out both in principle and on the facts. No fair minded Greek Cypriot can seriously deny that the Turkish Cypriots were subjected to persecution in the hands of the Cypriot state that was supposed to protect them.
The Turkish Cypriots no longer live in fear and it is morally untenable for here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians, out to gain a few cheap votes by pandering to nationalist sentiment, to argue that they should only be accorded paper protection as a minority community. The idea that the Turkish Cypriots would give up a life free of fear for anything less than their own constituent state in which they are solely responsible for their security, is for the birds. As the Cypriot state failed to protect them – indeed seriously harassed and attacked them – it is morally right for those who suffered persecution to wish to reconstitute it so that it is able to protect them.
On the other side it is also morally compelling that as many displaced Greek Cypriots as possible are able to return under the control of any future Greek Cypriot constituent state. I hope this much is common ground and that the details can be worked out in accordance with well-known principles worked out over forty years of negotiations and last applied in 2004.
But there is a third category with a moral claim apart from the claims of the two communities. It is that of individual Greek and Turkish Cypriot persons who may wish to break the mould and choose to stay in the constituent state of the other community. I strongly believe that legal mechanisms within a flexible federal framework can easily be devised to accommodate this third category without disturbing the essential character of a federation of two core communities.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge