The current political situation in Cyprus creates many obstacles to the exercise of cultural rights, the United Nations human rights expert Karima Bennoune said on Thursday at the end of her first fact-finding mission to Cyprus.
The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, who visited Cyprus from May 24 to June 2, expressed concern about the administrative obstacles posed by the division of Cyprus for individuals wishing to exercise their right to enjoy and access cultural heritage.
“I condemn unjustified restrictions on access to cultural heritage for religious ceremonies, including those that were announced by the Turkish Cypriot authorities during my visit. The attempt to increase restrictions has been harmful,” Bennoune said.
She was referring to recent restrictions imposed on Orthodox services by the north.
She called for any unfounded restrictions to be lifted and urged the Cyprus government to abstain from any retaliatory measure. “Cultural rights, including the right to enjoy and access cultural heritage shall not be considered as a bargaining chip,” the independent expert stressed.
The Special Rapporteur said there were also issues of access to cultural sites in the south of the country, although there is a tendency to consider that such issues only happen in the north. “The government should make every effort to end de facto limitations on accessing cultural sites, including through clarifying opening hours, simplifying processes for accessing particular sites, and providing for essential facilities such as water and washrooms at some sites,” she said.
“Cyprus is making a great deal of efforts to ensure that cultural heritage, which is at the centre of great tensions and could potentially undermine reconciliation, contributes to the solution”, the expert highlighted. She also praised the work of the Technical Committees on Cultural Heritage, Education, Culture and Gender in this regard: “They provide an important framework for contacts between people across communal lines and should be studied as possible best practices.”
“Many of the cultural heritage sites I visited had been restored or were undergoing restoration works, but I also visited sites that were in terrible conditions, as is the case for some abandoned churches and mosques in many small villages, neglected and left exposed to vandalism. I also visited archaeological sites in need of further protection,” the expert noted.
While recognising the important work that was being done, Bennoune drew attention to the frustration of people regretting what they see as the slow pace of the restorations. “I agree with them, cultural heritage cannot wait,” she said.
Thanks to the opening of the crossings, the expert noted, people visited their old villages and neighbourhoods, their old churches, mosques and cemeteries. “They started talking to each other again, to recognise and re-humanise each other,” she added. “In this way, cultural heritage can promote human rights.”
The expert also stressed that the younger generations have not experienced past social interactions, are used to the status quo and are exposed to a narrative of mistrust, also through the educational system, which jeopardizes the possibilities for a peaceful future.
“What Cypriots need for the reconciliation process is to exercise their human rights,” the Special Rapporteur said. “This implies at least participation and consultation in the decisions impacting their cultural rights.” She recommended adequate consultation processes regarding the meaning of heritage, restoration work, destination and future use of sites.
The Special Rapporteur regretted that an application to include the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque on the UNESCO World Heritage List was made “without involving the people having a particular link with the site, when such project may carry significant implications for them in terms of access and maintenance of the site.”
“Though a positive nod to reconciliation between the two largest population groups on the island, the bi-communal framework and the limited categories recognised in the constitution of 1960 are insufficient today to characterise the complexity of this diverse society”, Bennoune stated.
The expert noted that Cyprus’ society currently includes not only Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but also a mosaic of historic minorities and more newly-arrived persons, people of mixed identities, and those who chose to identify in some other fashion altogether.
“Each person should have a right to self-identify,” she said. She noted that different people may have diverse historic relationships with the island of Cyprus, which must be acknowledged and respected, but all must enjoy their cultural rights without discrimination.
The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report on her visit to Cyprus to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017.