Supporting a solution in Cyprus

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Monday, 7 September, 2009

Shortly before returning to Cyprus with his fellow Elders Lakhdar Brahimi and Gro Brundtland, Desmond Tutu argues in Havadis that both sides must take advantage of the opportunity for peace and unity before it is lost.

When I visited Cyprus last October with my fellow Elders Jimmy Carter and Lakhdar Brahimi, the widespread desire for a peaceful settlement to the island’s decades of division left a deep impression on us. We know that the majority of Greek and Turkish Cypriots want peace.

It was also clear that there were major differences and obstacles which stood in the way of progress. There was understandable anxiety about what a settlement might mean. Years of separation and political dogma from leaders on both sides have left a legacy of distrust among the people. And one of the biggest road-blocks to peace might actually be complacency - a feeling of resignation that progress will again run into the sand and that little would change even if an agreement was reached. We fear that this cynicism and complacency could see a tremendous opportunity lost – and masks the very real risks if reunification efforts fail.

That is why my friends and I promised to keep a close eye on progress and to return if we felt we could help. It is of course for the island’s leaders and citizens to work out the way forward. But the rest of us can play our part in encouraging these efforts.

So I am returning to Cyprus with fellow Elders Lakhdar Brahimi and Gro Brundtland. We will also visit Ankara and Athens. Along with other observers, we feel that the opportunity for peace and unity in Cyprus is still tantalisingly within reach, but time is running out fast.

Our hope is that in our own way, we can help create a climate in which attention is re-focused on what matters. As outsiders, we hope we can emphasise what can be gained but also what could be lost.

It is easy to be dazzled by the beauty of Cyprus, its climate and desirable life-style. The continued division of Cyprus can seem to have little impact on daily life.

But the reality is different. We learned on our last visit of the everyday frustrations that division brings and how it is holding back the island’s economic progress and the prosperity of its people.

The ‘Cyprus problem’ also remains an open wound which has been and continues to be exploited for political ends. It is, for example, a very visible obstacle to Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union and the benefits EU membership would bring to the Turkish people and Europe as a whole, especially Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Frictions over Cyprus also stand in the way of better relations between Greece and Turkey, two important regional players who would benefit from closer co-operation.

Nor is it correct to believe, as many Cypriots in both communities do, that the relatively benign status quo will remain if this chance for peace is lost. There is a danger that positions will harden and division could slide into permanent partition.

This could inevitably, despite best efforts, increase tensions on the island and between neighbouring countries. In the long-term, partition would be damaging not just to the people of Cyprus but across the region.

It is to the enormous credit of Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Mehmet Ali Talat that they recognise these dangers. It is why they have been working so hard to find a bi-zonal, bi-communal, federal solution which will protect the interests of both communities and enable them to reap the economic benefits that stability and unity will bring.

These efforts must be re-invigorated at every level. We need to see a more active campaign to promote the benefits of a federal solution even if, as is necessarily the case, compromises have to be made. History shows that concessions now in a peace process pay major dividends in the long-term.

The governments of both Turkey and Greece need to give greater support to Cypriot efforts to reach a settlement. We are travelling to Athens and Ankara to emphasise that these two important neighbouring countries and their people have plenty to gain from peace, stability and prosperity in Cyprus. So does the wider international community - which should do more to spell out how it would support a settlement.

It is never easy for people to put aside their suspicions and genuine grievances even in the cause of peace. But, as I witnessed in South Africa, the courage of leaders and vision of its citizens can heal the deepest of wounds and lift seemingly immovable barriers to reconciliation.

These are qualities which can be found in Cyprus. What’s needed is a new energy and boldness to capitalise on the opportunity before it slips away. Future generations will thank those who put in the extra effort when it was needed. It is needed now.

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