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Cyprus Problem: Time to up the ante

İpek Özerim

İpek Özerim

Cyprus Problem: Time to up the ante

  • 06.08.2017

With or without a deal, life continues on the island. For those caught up in the Cyprus Conflict Property Issue – an estimated quarter of a million refugees and their heirs, and a similar number of current owners of former refugee land – the battle to secure their property rights continues.

Historically, the Turkish side has championed the need to resolve this issue at the negotiating table, believing a global solution was better than an individual, piecemeal approach. Under Rauf Denktaş’s leadership, TRNC laws prevented Turkish Cypriot refugees from pursuing individual claims against the South. Instead, they would negotiate en masse via their government.

Once the details of the property deal were thrashed out, it would deliver speed and certainty for all parties involved. Bizonality would be preserved, in line with the UN parameters for a federal solution, ensuring each community would form the majority of the area they controlled.

Greek Cypriots resist this common sense approach, instead insisting on the rights of the original owners and for the maximum number of refugees to return “home”. The UK plumped for Brexit due to a 5 per cent increase in European foreigners. Imagine how the TRNC would respond if the population changed by 30 per cent to accommodate the 100,000 Greek Cypriots their side pushes for?

The South’s strategy is to destroy the principle of bizonality, which they claim is tantamount to “ethnic cleansing”, conveniently side-stepping past and present threats from Greek Cypriot fascists who openly declare their intentions to cleanse the island of its Turkish inhabitants as part of their purely “Hellenic” identity for Cyprus. These fascists are now in the Greek Cypriot parliament.

The same authorities also demand property disputes are resolved on a “case-by-case basis”. Living in some fantasy bubble, they assume life in the North is frozen in time and that all refugees can just waltz back to their old homes without a care for those who’ve been living there for the past 43 years – many of them also refugees.

A new hard-hitting report by Embargoed! – the UK-based Turkish Cypriot human rights group –claims that if Greek Cypriots had their way, settling individual cases could take over 100 years! No doubt the stress and tensions involved in such long-winded and bitter legal challenges would impact on intercommunal relations, an aspect Embargoed! also highlights:

“Pitting past and present owners against each other by demanding that cases are resolved through individual claims is simply reckless and dangerous, and will also undermine the new union.”

Thankfully, with the talks on hold, such a dire prospect has been alleviated. Yet it is unfair to keep former and current owners in legal limbo forever.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1974 war, the property issue was contained between two sets of refugees. But several generations on, many displaced landowners are now dead, replaced by multiple heirs each awaiting their inheritance, which more often than not has been developed and sold on to new owners. Trying to trace and deal with all these stakeholders becomes more complex and expensive with each passing year.

One of the core recommendations that Embargoed! makes is for both sides to undertake a comprehensive land ownership audit to determine the scope of the problem, which in turn will inform the scale of costs. The TRNC should initiate this and publish its findings, detailing where and how much land its refugees and institutions own in the South, along with contested land in the North, putting pressure on the Greek Cypriot side to do the same.

Another urgent requirement is for both communities to adhere to the principles laid down by the European Court of Human Rights, most notably in the Demopoulos case of 2010. The court ruled out a blanket right of restitution for refugees because it would not “impose an unconditional obligation to embark on the forcible eviction and rehousing of potentially large numbers of men, women and children”. The ECHR also stated that where a person has no “concrete and persisting links” with a property, even if “family roots” exist, it will not be considered their “home”.

The UN and EU should urge the Greek Cypriot side to adjust its position and come in line with Europe’s top court, which in turn will manage the expectations of its own community. Pressure should also be applied for the creation of a parallel Immovable Property Commission in the South, with neutral judges, instead of just Greek Cypriot ones who seem to mainly block the valid property claims of Turkish Cypriot refugees.

One of the report’s most eye-opening claims revolve around Maraş/Varosha and Evkaf (Islamic Trust of Cyprus). Embargoed! calls for the immediate opening of the fenced-off area in Famagusta – a sensible idea. Left to decay, this ghost town is no good to anyone. The group doesn’t say under whose jurisdiction Varosha should come in the absence of a peace deal.

UN Security Council Resolution 550, passed back in 1984, called for the UN to oversee the town’s resettlement, perhaps because the landowners were perceived to be mainly Greek Cypriot? This view is blown out of the water in the section “Why the true owners of Varosha/Maraş matter”, which asserts the land ownership claims of Evkaf.

The umbrella Islamic trust claims to hold 90 per cent of the deeds to Maraş. Even more significantly, Embargoed! writes that, “After years of meticulous research, reviewing over 8 million documents, Evkaf has now laid claim to at least 14 per cent of Cyprus’ total landmass and likely well over 20 per cent. The evidence to back this huge inventory is said to be up to ‘international legal standards’, and will be tested in the Cypriot courts and, if needs be, the ECHR.”

These claims, if true, are a real game-changer: Greek Cypriots will come under a far larger financial burden to compensate Turkish Cyprus, which could also affect territorial adjustments.

President Akıncı’s announcement that Maronite communities can return to their old villages is an important development. The TRNC government is also seriously mulling over the opening of Maraş, which was discussed with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last week. These moves have caught the Greek Cypriots out, who are now back-tracking on earlier demands for the ghost town to be restored and refugees allowed back in.

The TRNC needs to continue in this positive, proactive vein, driving forward measures – unilaterally if needs be – that will help draw a line underneath this issue for once and for all.

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