A divided Cyprus cannot really heal without a process of reconciliation

By Fahri Zihni

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson wrote “among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages”. For Cyprus, the truth did not only become the first casualty of war, but continues to be so to this day. We may ask, so what? Does this really matter?

Between 2008 and 2011, world figures from the Elders foundation, founded by Nelson Mandela, paid three visits to Cyprus to proffer suggestions about post-conflict resolution based on their supreme international experience. The delegates included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, distinguished human rights activist and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established to investigate past human rights abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid factions in South Africa. This was undertaken to help each side come to terms with what they had done, and begin a process of reconciliation based on mutual sympathy and respect. In Cyprus, while “lip service” was paid to these suggestions by all parties, no real work has been undertaken to make this happen.

There has been much debate about what the best types of political solutions might be (e.g. federal, confederal, two-state) to help solve the Cyprus problem in the last 60 years, after the Republic collapsed in December 1963. However, reconciliation matters, whatever the solution because the reality of sharing a small island measuring 150 x 60 miles is that there are many problems, of necessity, that are common to all inhabitants. For the island and its peoples to succeed, cooperation is essential on many vital matters such as the environment, emergencies such as forest fires, cross-border crime, illegal immigration, inter-community trade, and the vital planning and managing of natural resources on the island and its seas.

If the two peoples are not reconciled with each other, and disaffection, mistrust and even hatred rules the day – which appears to be the case right now – all these island-wide issues could move from potential life-enriching “win-wins” to “lose-lose” disaster points, creating even greater levels of conflict.

This is not just a vague possibility. We know from our recent history that the events of the period between December 1963 and pre-July 1974 did create this type of environment of hostility, discrimination and racial hatred, giving rise to the even more catastrophic events of 1974.

History must now be stopped from repeating itself. Regrettably, all that we are seeing now is the ratcheting up of machismo rhetoric from all sides, an arms race between north and south Cyprus, and Greece and Turkey. How clever is that?

It is essential that the long overdue advice from the Elders is taken now to put the people of Cyprus on the path of harmonious relations by establishing a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, under the auspices of the UN. This would include academics, NGOs, historians, journalists and facilitators from both communities, appointed by each community’s democratic representatives.

In relation to the terms of reference, the commission ought not be limited to one area, but cover a wider agenda to include the investigation of historical facts about the tragic events of 1963-4, 1967 and 1974.

It should be perfectly possible for the commission to “hit the ground running”, with many existing well researched reports sponsored by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, which shed light on many historical issues.

The commission should have the courage to address polarised points of serious contention between the two communities, head on.

The Greek Cypriot historical perspective is that Greek and Turkish Cypriots were happily united communities before July 20, 1974 and holds Turkey responsible for destroying this through its military action which started on this day. This perspective argues that the whole issue is about Turkish “invasion and occupation”, physically dividing the island, splitting the two communities and creating 165,000 displaced Greek Cypriots. It calls for the geographic and constitutional reunification of Turkish and Greek Cypriots.  On July 20 each year, the Greek Cypriots commemorate their losses of life and property and strongly criticise Turkey for its military intervention.

The Turkish Cypriots argue that as a smaller and more vulnerable community (outnumbered 4:1), they were already driven out of 103 villages at gunpoint by Greek and Greek Cypriot militia, making one quarter of their population refugees ten years before the events of 1974. They assert that before the tragic events of 1974, their community was already excluded from the Cyprus government and that they lived in isolated enclaves, geographically, physically socially and economically separated from Greek Cypriots. They argue that had Turkey not intervened in the Greek mainland inspired coup, they would have suffered the final act of their own ethnic cleansing. On July 20 each year, they commemorate their losses of life between 1963-74, rejoice their liberation and thank Turkey for saving their lives.

Clearly, the above two historical perspectives are completely at odds with each other. We need to add to this a few contradictions, which complicate matters.

The Greek Cypriot side, as the numerically dominant entity, has had a policy of unification since 1974, but the Annan Plan referendum in 2004 to unify the island was rejected by the Greek Cypriot voters. Similarly, the Turkish Cypriot side voted in favour of the plan, but 19 years on, their current outlook, based on the election of their current leader, is in favour of independence. It is also clear that many Turkish Cypriots may have been influenced to vote “Yes” in their (false) belief at the time that this was a vote for joining Europe.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, working closely with all the relevant stakeholders, has the potential to support the two communities in reconciling differences between themselves and affording them the opportunity to develop a joint future, grounded in harmony rather than discord.

I invite all fair-minded people to support initiatives to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Cyprus.


Fahri Zihni is former chair of Council of Turkish Cypriot Associations (UK), a former policy advisor at the UK’s Cabinet Office and a former president of Society of IT Management, UK.