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Report: The Elders’ visit to Cyprus 2008

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Monday, 20 October, 2008

Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu report their findings after visiting Cyprus, where Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders have recently begun direct, open-ended negotiations to try to reunify the divided island.

  • "There are moments in history where everything is working for you. A moment like that is on hand for Cyprus. [But] the two leaders can’t do it on their own. They need the support of the community, the media – inside and outside Cyprus – and the support of the rest of the world." Lakhdar Brahimi
  • "We have said to these two splendid leaders that this is their moment in history. It is a moment we hope they will catch." Desmond Tutu
  • "In all the negotiations in which I’ve been involved there have had to be compromises and concessions. But in each case the concession or compromise was much less important than the ultimate goal of peace, accommodation, friendship and common purpose." Jimmy Carter

Overview and purpose of the visit

Three members of The Elders, Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, paid a two-day visit to Cyprus in early October to support the leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities who have recently begun direct, open-ended negotiations to try to reunify the island. The Elders made it clear that the purpose of their visit was not to get directly involved in the peace talks, but to lend their support to the leaders and to members of both communities who want to end the decades’ old division of the island.

Archbishop Tutu, President Carter and Mr Brahimi commended Turkish Cypriot leader Mr Mehmet Ali Talat and Greek Cypriot leader Mr Demetris Christofias on their efforts to move the peace process forward. Wanting to learn more about the situation on the island, the three Elders also held discussions with young people, civil society groups and political parties from the two Cypriot communities. They also met representatives of the United Nations, who are facilitating the discussions between Mr Christofias and Mr Talat, as well as members of the diplomatic community.

The timing of the Elders’ visit was opportune. The peace talks, which formally started on 3 September, had lost some momentum after early enthusiasm; the leaders had not met for several weeks and had started to air their differences in the media. The Elders’ visit helped to refocus the political leaders, the public and the media on the promising opportunity at hand to achieve lasting peace. The Elders described the visit to Cyprus as a productive, informative and enriching experience.

Meetings and main findings

The Elders were warmly welcomed in Cyprus. In their meetings with people from different communities, age groups and various walks of life, the overwhelming message they heard was the desire for peace and a lasting settlement to the Cyprus problem. During their conversations, the Elders were informed of the realities of life in Cyprus as well as the hopes and concerns of both communities.

The Elders’ first meeting was with a group of about 30 young people from the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities who are actively involved in bicommunal activities. The young people spoke of their eagerness for reconciliation, their support for the two leaders’ efforts to reach a settlement and of wanting to live as ‘Cypriots’ rather than being identified with one community or another. However, these young people face daily frustrations in their efforts to interact: it is not possible to send text messages between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot mobile phones; students who cross the UN buffer zone to go to school have to show their passports twice a day; and some say their parents won’t let them cross without accompanying them, even to go to the cinema with friends. Despite these challenges, the Elders urged the young people at the meeting to focus on the future rather than the past. They were encouraged to continue to serve as ambassadors for peace within and between their communities.

The Elders next met UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Cyprus, Mr Alexander Downer, and UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, Mr Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, to learn more about the latest political developments on the island, some of the challenges to reaching a peace deal, and the UN’s role in facilitating the negotiations between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders. The Elders shared relevant experiences from Afghanistan, the Middle East and South Africa where visionary leadership, compromise and flexibility helped negotiating parties come to an agreement.

Slovak Ambassador Anna Turenicova – who supports an ongoing process to facilitate inter-communal dialogue and cooperation among political parties of both communities – hosted a meeting with the Elders and representatives of fourteen Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot political parties. All expressed their support for the current talks between Mr Talat and Mr Christofias and the goal of unifying the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation of two constituent states with political equality and a single international personality. The Elders observed that there “seems to be agreement for peace” among the parties and goodwill to overcome past differences. They urged the political parties to keep the overall goal of peace in mind and resist becoming bogged down in details, emphasising that this “once in a lifetime chance” should not be missed.

At a gathering of about 50 Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot civil society representatives, the Elders shared their experiences of living and working in divided communities. Archbishop Tutu and Mr Brahimi spoke of apartheid in South Africa; President Carter spoke of growing up in a racially segregated USA. The Elders told participants how prejudices and obstacles which had seemed insurmountable could be overcome without resorting to bloodshed – aided by fortuitous timing and the ability of leaders to put aside their differences, accept compromises and concessions, and offer their hands in peace and reconciliation. The Elders also noted that there are very few women in politics in Cyprus and that more should be done to ensure that women play a greater role in political life and the peace process.

The Elders held separate meetings with Mr Christofias and Mr Talat on 9 October. They made it clear to both leaders that they did not seek to intervene in the negotiations; Cypriots must find the solution to the Cyprus problem themselves. As representatives of all The Elders, Tutu, Carter and Brahimi commended and encouraged the leaders in their mission to achieve a settlement. They emphasised that this is an auspicious moment, with the world wishing the leaders success. But, as the Elders said to both Mr Talat and Mr Christofias, they are the main reason that peace is now possible. These two relatively young, courageous and charismatic leaders, with similar ideological and trade union backgrounds, share a determination to end the division of the island.

The two leaders acknowledged that this is an opportune moment in Cyprus’ history. They recognise that there are difficulties and disagreements between them but ultimately they are both working towards the same goal – a unified, peaceful, stable and prosperous Cyprus. Both leaders elaborated on some of the substantive and operational challenges that they are facing to achieve an agreement acceptable to their communities including matters of governance, property, territory and security. Mr Christofias and Mr Talat also acknowledged the support provided by the UN in helping to facilitate the talks, yet emphasised that ultimately the job of reaching an agreement rests in their own hands.

The Elders encouraged the two leaders to continue to meet regularly, to remain positive about each other and the peace process, and to prepare their communities for reasonable compromises. They also urged the leaders to continue to implement further confidence-building measures such as setting up educational exchanges between university lecturers from both communities. With the eyes of the international community eagerly watching in hope of a settlement, the Elders reminded the two leaders of the “once in a hundred years” opportunity that they have at hand. At a time of global instability and uncertainty, a peace deal in Cyprus would have positive repercussions not only for the island but for the region, the European Union and rest of the world.

Following their meeting with Mr Christofias in his office in the southern part of Nicosia and on their way to meeting with Mr Talat in the northern part of Nicosia, the Elders took a walk down Ledra Street, crossing the UN buffer zone that divides the city. Located in a central Nicosia shopping district, the Ledra Street crossing has long symbolised the division of the island. In April 2008 the two community leaders agreed to open the crossing as a confidence-building measure and it has now become a popular attraction for Cypriots and tourists. The Elders welcomed the opportunity to see the crossing themselves.

The Elders also held a well-attended press conference to inform media of the purpose of their visit and key findings. They emphasised the historic opportunity for the two leaders and all Cypriots to make history, and urged greater domestic and international support for the talks. They also spoke of the need for concessions to be made by all stakeholders, and the importance of balancing compromises against the ultimate goal of peace. In this context, the Elders urged the media to be aware of the important role they play in peace processes by choosing what to report and how to interpret it. They highlighted the need to remove barriers which not only obstruct contact between the communities but also hamper effective collaboration between law enforcement agencies, universities, telecommunication companies, etc. Asked about their experience with truth and reconciliation processes, the Elders, and Archbishop Tutu in particular, emphasised that any process must be appropriate for the specific country and that truth alone does not automatically lead to healing; time is also an important factor.

Prior to their departure the Elders met ambassadors based on the island. They spoke about efforts to increase trust and confidence between the communities, the challenges of peace processes, the art of compromise and the benefits of peace. They also addressed issues related to Cyprus’s EU membership and Turkey’s membership application. The Elders indicated that the international community could do more to support the ongoing efforts for reconciliation without interfering in the actual negotiations. The international community – and in particular the EU – should be prepared to provide, in the event of a settlement, financial assistance to support implementation of the agreement.

The Elders left the island optimistic about the significant progress being made by the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders toward reaching a settlement. They were encouraged in particular by the hope among young people they met for lasting peace in Cyprus. Archbishop Tutu said many times during the visit that he looked forward to returning to a reunited island: “I’m not as young as I look and I want to come back to celebrate a united Cyprus with all people living together in peace and equality.”

Media Coverage

The Elders’ visit was front page news in Cyprus across English, Greek and Turkish language press. Radio and TV news also covered the visit extensively. International news agencies based in Cyprus (AP, AFP, DPA, Reuters and Xinhua) published photos and stories which were picked up in Europe, Australia and the USA. Greek and Turkish media reported the visit in brief.

Most media reports picked up on the Elders’ enthusiasm and excitement about the prospect of a lasting settlement. Headlines included: “Support for efforts, wishes for the future – Visit of support by three Elders (Philelefteros); “Elder Statesmen boost to Cyprus peace process” (Cyprus Mail); “Elders Bring Peace Message to the Children” (Cyprus Mail); “Peace Invasion – Tutu, Carter, Brahimi visit Cyprus” (Politis); “Tutu: We believe that it’s possible to reach a solution on this beautiful island” (Kibris) and “Elders throw weight behind Cyprus peace drive: Failure not an option, say respected statesmen” (Cyprus Weekly). A selection of articles is available on The Elders’ website.

Next Steps

The Elders were delighted to hear that, shortly after their visit, Mr Talat and Mr Christofias reaffirmed their commitment to meet once per week and also agreed to cancel military exercises planned for later this month – an important confidence-building measure.

Archbishop Tutu, President Carter and Mr Brahimi – on behalf of the other members of The Elders and with the support of the staff team – will continue to follow events in Cyprus closely. If they can contribute to supporting the Cypriot leaders in their ongoing peace efforts, they would be happy to consider such a request. The Elders will ensure that what they have learned from the visit to Cyprus reaches the ears of the international community – in Brussels in particular, but also in other world capitals.

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