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Cyprus Lessons: How to melt a frozen conflict

Colin Irwin   Sun 06 May 2018

The world is plagued by a number of frozen conflicts that hold themselves, their regions and occasionally the whole world to ransom denying their people peace while stoking the fires of geopolitical conflict. Israel and Palestine is the most well known of these frozen conflicts and Syria has the potential to become one along with the transnational Sunni/Shia split and radicalised international terrorist groups. Frozen conflicts can be ended by one side defeating the other, e.g. Sri Lanka, or by peace agreement, e.g. Northern Ireland where, significantly, the agreement reached was endorsed in a referendum supported by a programme of public diplomacy and opinion research. Similarly it should be possible to resolve the Cyprus frozen conflict but so far all efforts have failed. What has gone wrong, can the Cyprus problem be solved, and if so are there lessons to be learnt there that can benefit the rest of the world?

I first got involved in Cyprus when I was invited to make a presentation of the methods used in Northern Ireland to the Greek Turkish Forum in Istanbul in 1998. At that meeting, chaired by the US President’s Special Envoy Richard Holbrook, I persuaded the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to start with a peace poll that focused on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). They agreed but the proposal was not followed up resulting in the failed peace process and referendum of 2004. Lessons were learnt and local Cypriot NGOs were created to fill this gap with funding from the UNDP and Interpeace. Then, following the resumption of negotiations in 2014 I was invited to run a series of peace polls in support of negotiations in 2016/17 as part of a final ‘push’ to reach an agreement.

This paper reviews three peace polls conducted in 2016/17 using the Northern Ireland methods that require the negotiating parties to agree all aspects of the research agenda including the questions asked. The results of these polls are reviewed and compared with results from other conflicts using the same or similar methods. In Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka a ‘peace package’ would always overcome potential difficulties inherent in the various elements of an agreement not acceptable to both parties. However, this is not the case in Cyprus where the benefits of a settlement have yet to be fully demonstrated. Significantly, no one is getting killed in Cyprus rendering the status quo acceptable.

Confidence Building Measures were an important part of the Northern Ireland peace process and although the polls indicate the people of Cyprus want an extensive program of CBMs to be implemented, they have been resisted by the Greek Cypriot side as ‘normalization’ of the status quo. But ‘normalization’ can be avoided if the CBMs focus on ‘symbolic’ issues of peace making first rather than ‘substantive’ elements of a final peace agreement. Experience in Northern Ireland and polling in Cyprus, Israel and Palestine suggest that this strategy will work both there and elsewhere in the world.

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Cyprus Lessons: How to melt a frozen conflict