Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Cyprus: Bridging the Property Divide

Stability in the Eastern Mediterranean will remain hostage to full settlement of the Cyprus dispute, but the property issue – one of its most intractable knots – can be solved now if Greek and Turkish Cypriots compromise on new proposals currently before them.

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Executive Summary

The property issue is one of the most intractable knots in the settlement of the Cyprus dispute, without which stability in the Eastern Mediterranean remains fragile. Greek and Turkish Cypriots own tens of thousands of buildings and parcels of land on both sides of the divided island. A convincing plan to resolve conflicting claims would give great support to reunification efforts and persuade external partners of Cypriots’ will to find a compromise, even as the 2011 electoral calendar sets what is in effect a deadline for the present negotiations. But as Cypriot politicians and Turkey fail to come to terms, the property question is increasingly being atomised by individual actions and the courts – a process that will be more expensive, slow and inefficient for all than a comprehensive property settlement. With a comprehensive deal proving elusive, heavy court and administrative penalties and the actions of Cypriot individuals mean that the property issue can no longer be ignored or avoided. New ideas are urgently needed.

The passage of time since the events that led to mass displacements – 47 years in some cases – means many properties have been assigned to new users by local authorities, sold, destroyed or significantly developed. The two communities have grown apart and established new socio-economic structures in their respective areas, having lived behind closed front lines for three decades and interacted only superficially since crossing points opened in 2003. They have adopted opposing approaches to property, Greek Cypriots emphasising return and Turkish Cypriots resettlement, and a body of local legislation reflects this divergence. There are also disagreements about the amount and value of property each community owns on both sides of the island.

Attempts to find a negotiated settlement have tried to tackle property, which has implications for the individual and collective human rights of the island’s 210,000 displaced persons and their heirs, at least one fifth of the population, the majority of whom are Greek Cypriots. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s efforts in 2002-2004 were the most comprehensive. But these failed, together with the broader talks, and left more questions open than they provided answers. While there is general agreement that Cyprus should become a bizonal, bicommunal federation, the two communities have diametrically opposed ideas about how bizonality should affect the right to return. Greek Cypriots stress displaced persons’ right to return and enjoy property as enshrined in international law. Turkish Cypriots emphasise that they should remain the majority in their zone and that this will impact how many Greek Cypriots can regain their property. In fact, fewer than one quarter of Greek or Turkish Cypriots say that they will definitely or probably return to their old homes if these fall under the other constituent state.

In the absence of a political settlement, more Cypriots are turning to costly and slow judicial solutions. International courts have found Turkey liable for blocking Greek Cypriot access to their properties in the north and imposed substantial financial penalties. But the courts are recognising that long-term users also have rights and that individual owners should be able to voluntarily exchange properties. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) especially has been encouraging Cypriots to rely on domestic remedies, such as a Turkish Cypriot property commission to which several hundred displaced Greek Cypriots have already applied.

In the round of reunification talks underway since September 2008, the two leaders have agreed in principle to settle the property dispute through a mix of restitution, exchange and compensation. Any compromise should balance the rights of displaced Greek Cypriots with those of the displaced Turkish Cypriots, as well as take into account the accommodation needs of a mutually agreed number of Turkish settlers. This migration to Cyprus contravened the spirit of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but the immigrants’ children may now have been born and lived their whole lives on the island.

The failures of the past three decades prove that neither side is likely to achieve its ideal settlement, and flexibility is needed. Turkish Cypriots should recognise that while they want to retain a majority in their constituent state, two thirds to three quarters of property in their area was owned by Greek Cypriots in 1974, when the present division of the island took place. They must understand that the right to restitution holds great importance in Greek Cypriot discourse. Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaders must remind their populations that the division of the island has no legal basis.

Politicians in Ankara, especially, should relaunch and sustain their outreach to Greek Cypriots to assure them of Turkey’s commitment to seeing through a settlement and return of property. For Ankara in particular, indefinite occupation would invite higher costs, both in court judgements and in its efforts to join the European Union. Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, should pay heed to international court rulings that challenge their conviction that the rights of original owners and their heirs supersede all other considerations. A compromise solution will have to accept that not all Greek Cypriots will automatically be able to return to their old properties within a new bizonal, bicommunal federation.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 9 December 2010

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