The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus: An Overdue Review by Dr. Nasia Hadjigeorgiou

A review of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus by Human Rights researcher and professor Dr. Nasia Hadjigeorgiou:

In 1981, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot political leaders agreed to establish the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP), a unique bicommunal institution with the objective of identifying and returning to their families the remains of those Cypriots who disappeared on the island between 1963 and 1974. Almost four decades later, it is time to take a long hard look on what this institution has achieved, not only because this is of vital importance for Cypriots, but also because the CMP’s practices are being copied by other post-violence societies around the world.

Under the Committee’s terms of reference, its mandate is exclusively a humanitarian one, namely to provide a sense of closure to the relatives of missing persons through the return of the remains. In this respect, its outcomes to date are relatively positive. According to the CMP’s published data, there were 2,002 recorded missing persons on the island – 1,510 Greek Cypriots and 492 Turkish Cypriots, which roughly reflects the population ratios of the two communities. Of these, approximately half – 701 Greek Cypriots and 275 Turkish Cypriots – have been identified and returned to their families by the Committee.

As part of a research project funded by the International Peace Research Association Foundation, a series of interviews took place in 2019 with relatives of those whose remains have been returned. For the majority (although not all) of those who were interviewed, the Committee’s work has resulted in a sense of closure, as they are finally able to bury their loved ones, which has in turn, given the relatives a place to visit and commemorate them. Conversely, those who are still waiting for the remains of their family members to be returned, report being bitterly disappointed with the Committee’s work and feel that the passage of time is making their pain worse, rather than soothing it. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriot relatives that fall in this category complain that community leaders took advantage of their pain to advance their political agendas, but largely ignored them when they asked for any practical assistance.

Despite the overall positive assessment of the CMP by those who have received their relatives’ remains, they also echo these complaints. The Committee might have eventually provided closure to them, but this was delayed and was compromised by the lack of transparency in the way the CMP has been operating. While the Committee was established 39 years ago, it only became operational in 2006, by which time a number of witnesses who had evidence about the disappearances had died, thus taking their secrets with them to the grave. Additionally, many relatives expressed dissatisfaction with the Committee’s lack of transparency and pointed that it is unclear how different cases are prioritised for investigation and what rights family members have with regards to being informed about the progress of their case. It is these practices that make it hard for the relatives to trust that the Committee always operates with their best interests at heart.

Even though the CMP was established as a humanitarian institution, over the years, its members have claimed that it also has another objective, namely to ‘favour the overall process of reconciliation between both communities’ and ‘[pave] the way for a comprehensive settlement’ of the Cyprus problem. In this respect, the interviews conducted with relatives and anonymous employees and ex-employees of the CMP are unanimous: if the Committee is to be assessed as a reconciliation-promoting institution, it must be considered a failure. Despite its almost 40-year operation, the Committee has yet to properly inform the general population that there are missing persons in both communities. It has resisted attempts by bicommunal groups, like ‘Together We Can’ to organise meetings between Greek and Turkish Cypriot relatives and the public is often unaware that this institution is staffed by Cypriots living on both sides of the Green Line. Yet, if these basic steps are not adopted, the Committee’s reconciliation-promoting objectives are doomed to remain unmet.

Nasia Hadjigeorgiou
8 September 2020

Word From Cyprus

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