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EPA/Katia Christodoulou

Time to take the Cyprus question to the people

For a while, it seemed as though the long running dispute over the island Cyprus was nearing an end. But the latest summit between political leaders failed to produce a result. Now, citizens find themselves once again in limbo.

But as close as the process appeared then to be to a mutually agreed settlement, the farther it feels today. Whether the problem is the process itself or the people involved in the talks, it’s clear that political mediation has proven an inadequate mechanism for resolving this dispute, some 40 years after it first broke out.

A former British colony, Cyprus gained its independence in 1960. Within three years intercommunal violence had broken out between the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot inhabitants. Turkey’s military intervention in 1974 led to the ethnic partition of the island into a military occupied, ethnically Turkish north and an ethnically Greek south. The UN organised negotiations between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. But the settlement agreed in those talks was rejected at a referendum in 2004. All subsequent efforts to reach an agreement have failed.

But just because this specific mediation design may have failed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that mediation is an overall dead-end mechanism. An emerging tool for conflict resolution called social mediation is still an option. Social mediation has so far been used in smaller-scale community disputes, such as quarrels between neighbours. But with Cyprus standing silent in partition, the time seems ripe to use it in a political setting.

What is social mediation?

The practice of social mediation resembles legal and political mediation. It brings together an impartial mediator and the stakeholders involved in a dispute. The mediator leads a facilitated dialogue with the aim of reaching a settlement between the conflicting parties. That might include direct contact between disputants or not. The social mediator engages in the process merely as a facilitator of the exchange between disputants, enabling them to resolve community disputes and restore social bonds.

Critics of the current settlement design for Cyprus, which runs under the prerequisite “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, argue that the all or nothing approach is preventing progress. Any negotiated peace settlement for Cyprus must also be approved through separate referendums within the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, yet they’ve largely been excluded from the very process that decides their future. This means any proposal that emerges from the talks must surely run a high risk of being rejected at the referendums.

Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci and Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades meet in Switzerland in 2017. EPA

Social mediation would engage these primary stakeholders. They would either agree on a comprehensive settlement or separate components of a settlement if the “all or nothing” approach is abandoned. This would not only make the process more democratic but would also mean people could confront each other directly about difficult issues.

The setting and structure of social mediation sessions could take a variety of forms. Some examples include facilitated consultation sessions involving both Greek and Turkish Cypriot participants, mediated focus groups, or sessions of shuttle mediation – a design that enables communication without direct contact between the parties. Either way, such a process could generate an unprecedented public dialogue in a conflict otherwise in standstill, bringing valuable feedback to the table of negotiators.

The island’s citizens have looked on this process with pessimism for decades. Engaging them and empowering them now can only be seen as a positive step. Social mediation would still involve difficult conversations and controversial views but, in a sense, that’s the point. It would allow members of the general public to openly express their fears and talk about the injustices they have experienced. They, themselves, become the negotiators. The facilitated process of social mediation will also allow participants to hear the other community’s narrative and be exposed to the other’s fears and injustices, and to then practice the challenge of compromise themselves.

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