By Tasoula Hadjitofi
As a resident of The Hague in the Netherlands, I have become familiar with the international courts which have transformed this historic Dutch city into an international center dedicated to peace and justice. I have also been inspired by the humane culture of The Hague that reflects the civilized values espoused by renowned Dutch scholars. These include Erasmus who believed that the value of justice is that it “restrains bloodshed, punishes guilt, defends possessions and keeps people safe from oppression.”
My residence in The Hague began after I experienced the bloodshed, the loss of possessions and the insecurity caused by the armed invasion of my country, Cyprus, in 1974. That invasion resulted in the occupation of my birthplace of Famagusta. Having been forced out of my home in Famagusta and having thereby become a war child, I have used my adopted new home city to seek peace and justice for my semi-occupied country and my war-ravaged birthplace. My philosophy has rested on a simple idea. Only justice may bring authentic peace to the people of Cyprus, thus enabling them to move on and find harmony within themselves.
In practice, some of the main roads to justice pass through The Hague.
On the one hand, The Hague is synonymous with key instruments of international humanitarian law. These include the 1899 Hague Conventions with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War, the 1907 Hague Regulations annexed to the 1899 Conventions and the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
On the other hand, The Hague is where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was established in 1945, where the onetime International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in 1993 and where the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002.
To my frustration, however, the 1899 Hague Conventions, the 1907 Hague Regulations and the 1954 Convention have all been flouted in Turkish-occupied Famagusta and in so many other parts of Cyprus. Just as frustratingly, Turkey, the main perpetrator of injustice in Cyprus, has tried to block the road to justice via The Hague.
Unlike Cyprus and 72 other states, Turkey has failed to make any declaration recognizing the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) established in The Hague in 1945.
Furthermore, unlike Cyprus and 122 other states, Turkey has not become a state party to the 1998 Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in 2002; Turkey has not even signed the Statute.
As for the UN Security Council, despite establishing the ICTY in The Hague, it has failed to create any similar international criminal tribunal in either The Hague or elsewhere to deal with the countless unpunished international crimes committed in Cyprus.
It was in this climate of impunity that I have undertaken voluntary work to repatriate some of the thousands of icons, frescoes and other cultural artefacts which have been looted and illegally exported from the occupied area of Cyprus before being “sold” on the international market. This work has exposed me to a timeless truth: if law enforcement officers have the will to enforce the law through the courts, it is possible to provide a measure of justice to my homeland, even if this is limited to the retrieval and return of stolen artefacts.
During his tenure, Chrysostomos I, the late Archbishop of the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Christian Church of Cyprus, trusted me enough to supply me with the very best lawyers worldwide to work as advisors. Together, we ensured that the repatriation of cultural artefacts followed civil litigation, criminal proceedings or an appropriate method of alternative dispute resolution but NEVER through the purchase of looted items.
An example of a successful outcome is the one brought about by the protracted Lans case in the Netherlands. The case eventually resulted in the Dutch authorities recovering four 16th Century icons taken from the wooden iconostasis of the Monastery of Antiphonitis in Turkish-occupied Kyrenia District. The four icons were duly returned to Cyprus with the happy news announced during an international conference organized in September 2013 by Walk of Truth, the not-for-profit foundation instituted by me in The Hague. As a gesture of respect for my work, the Peace Palace in The Hague was made available for this purpose.
For me, this was a bitter-sweet moment. I was, of course, honored to have my work recognized by a conference held in the Peace Palace. In the words of the Carnegie Foundation, its custodian, the Peace Palace is not only “the worldwide icon” of the notion of “Peace through Law”. The Peace Palace is also a “temple of peace” which houses the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the ICJ. Nevertheless, despite the recovery of four icons, my home country of Cyprus and birthplace of Famagusta continued – and continues – to face ongoing injustice. Indeed, in 2014, just a few months after the conference held in The Hague, the injustice deepened when Prime Minister Erdogan transformed himself into President Erdogan and, in that way, tightened his authoritarian hold over Turkey and the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. Since 2014, the cruelties inflicted by the Erdogan regime have worsened and the injustice has deepened even more.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey has gone to great lengths to obstruct almost every road to justice in The Hague. On 30 September 2021, I was given a fresh reminder of this when the ICJ in The Hague issued a press release confirming that the ICJ, “the principal judicial organ of the United Nations”, would “hold public hearings in the case concerning Application of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Azerbaijan v. Armenia) on Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 October 2021, at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the seat of the Court.”
At the heart of this new case is the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), to which Azerbaijan and Armenia are state parties. Article 1.1 of the CERD defines “racial discrimination” as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”
Under Article 2.1(a) of the CERD, every state party “undertakes to engage in no act or practice of racial discrimination against persons, groups of persons or institutions and to ensure that all public authorities and public institutions, national and local, shall act in conformity with this obligation”.
When, in 1974, I and so many other citizens of Cyprus were forced out of our homes and thereby stripped of our human dignity, were we persecuted because of our national or ethnic origin? After 1974, were we de facto excluded from our homes for the same discriminatory reason? In other words, did we become – and do remain – the victims of discrimination and inequality caused by blatant violations of the CERD for which Turkey is responsible and for which Turkey should be held to account? If so, should the CERD be enforced so that every one of us can claim our legal rights, including those guaranteed by Article 5 such as the right “to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State”, the right “to own property alone as well as in association with others” and the right “to inherit”?
Since 1974, these and so many other questions should have been referred to one or more courts in The Hague. Yet, even in relation to the CERD, the road to The Hague has been blocked by Turkey. Whereas Cyprus signed the CERD in 1965 and became a state party in 1967, Turkey signed in 1972 but did not ratify until 2002. Crucially, when Turkey ratified the CERD, it did so subject to an unusual “declaration” which Cyprus, Sweden and the UK interpreted as a “reservation”.
Below is the Turkish “declaration”, as published by the UN:
“The Republic of Turkey declares that it will implement the provisions of this Convention only to the States Parties with which it has diplomatic relations. The Republic of Turkey declares that this Convention is ratified exclusively with regard to the national territory where the Constitution and the legal and administrative order of the Republic of Turkey are applied. The Republic of Turkey does not consider itself bound by Article 22 of this Convention [under which ‘Any dispute between two or more States Parties with respect to the interpretation or application of this Convention, which is not settled by negotiation or by the procedures expressly provided for in this Convention, shall, at the request of any of the parties to the dispute, be referred to the International Court of Justice for decision, unless the disputants agree to another mode of settlement’]. The explicit consent of the Republic of Turkey is necessary in each individual case before any dispute to which the Republic of Turkey is party concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention may be referred to the International Court of Justice.”
It is not difficult to see through this “declaration”. It has clearly been designed to achieve three dubious aims. One is to prevent Turkey from having to apply the CERD to Cyprus, with which it has not had any diplomatic relations since 1974. The second is to prevent Turkey from having to apply the CERD to the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. The third is to give Turkey a veto in response to any attempt to use the CERD as the basis of legal proceedings in the ICJ in The Hague. The end result is yet more discrimination, inequality and injustice.
In view of the above, I respectfully call upon the Government of Cyprus, the EU and the UN to answer the questions I have raised above. I also call upon each of them to answer a number of additional questions. What has each done to push Turkey into complying fully with the CERD? What has each done to protect my rights – and those of so many other victims of discrimination – under the CERD? What has each done to hold Turkey to account for its multiple ongoing violations of the CERD? What has each done to unblock – or to find a way around – the road to justice in The Hague? Put another way, what has each done to fulfil the vision of Erasmus by ensuring that justice “restrains bloodshed, punishes guilt, defends possessions and keeps people safe from oppression”?
I end with a personal plea addressed to the Prime Minister of my adopted country, the Netherlands, which has given me so much over the years.
Dear Prime Minister Mark Rutte,
Will you and the Government of the Netherlands please request the Government of Cyprus, the EU and the UN to answer the questions I have raised above? Will you please take all other necessary steps to champion the twin causes of peace and justice – for the sake of Cyprus, Europe and the whole of humanity? And will you please sponsor any necessary changes to Dutch legislation to enable these noble causes to be achieved in practice? If so, you will honor the memory of Erasmus and enhance the good name of my adopted city, The Hague, where I live so happily as a Dutch national with my family.
Tasoula Hadjitofi is a human rights advocate and cultural campaigner whose expertise is cultural heritage preservation. She’s the founding president of the Walk of Truth and the author of the 2017 book “The Icon Hunter”.