How about the rights of the Turkish Cypriots?

How about the rights of the Turkish Cypriots?

Hardly a day passes without senior U.S. officials criticizing Turkey over its plans to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems or pressuring Turkish authorities to suspend drilling for hydrocarbon reserves off the Cyprus Island.

The latter, however, increasingly displays urgency in the eyes of U.S. policymakers. A recent visit by U.S. State Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer to Nicosia seems to be quite significant in upgrading the level of bilateral relations between Washington and Nicosia. Turkey’s activities in the region and lifting a decades-old U.S. arms embargo on Cyprus were reportedly on Palmer’s agenda.

This new engagement between the two countries is surely related to the discovery of relatively rich hydrocarbon reserves off the island, also paving the way for the U.S. giant energy companies, like ExxonMobil and Noble Energy, to penetrate into gas fields.

The United States had already lent great political support to joint efforts by Greece, Israel and Greek Cyprus by dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to a trilateral summit in Israel.

This new axis stretching from Israel to Greece via Cyprus would sure increase the U.S. influence in the eastern Mediterranean with apparent visibility. That would also help the United States to counter the Russian impact in the region, if, of course, traditional ties based on shared Orthodox values between Nicosia and Moscow would be hurt as a result of this Cypriot-American rapprochement.    

‘Resources should be shared’

Another dimension of this new equation in the region corresponds to the rights of the Turkish Cypriots, an issue of least concern by the Greek Cypriots, international companies and the international community.

To give her credit, U.S. Ambassador to Nicosia, Judith Garber, has raised this aspect in a statement last week in the presence of Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades.

While noting that the United States recognizes the right of Cyprus to develop resources in its exclusive economic zone, she said: “We also believe these resources should be equitably shared between both communities in the context of an overall settlement. It is our earnest hope that such resources will soon benefit a united Cyprus.”

The ambassador’s statements come just a day after the Cypriot government unveiled a renegotiated contract with Shell, Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek in which it will earn $9.3 billion over 18 years from exploiting the Aphrodite gas field. According to the estimate, Cyprus will receive an average yearly income of $520 million over the lifespan of the gas field. Sadly, the Greek Cypriot statement had no mention about the rights of the Turkish Cypriots to this income.

If the United States is sincere in its views that the Turkish Cypriots should also benefit from these resources, it should impose pressure on both the Greek Cypriot government and the U.S. companies to this end. Washington should push for the establishment of a bicommunal commission for a transparent record of transactions and revenue sharing.

A serious breach of human rights

Most important is that this move should be done right away and not “in the context of an overall settlement” as noted by Ambassador Garber. I don’t know how it looks from Washington’s point of view, but prospects for a negotiated settlement have long ago collapsed due to Greek Cyprus.

History has bitterly shown that it has always been the Turkish Cypriots who have been suffering most from the decades-old conflict. They have been subjects of one of the world’s most incomprehensible and extensive embargoes for more than half a century.

Not long ago, only 15 years ago, two-thirds of the Turkish Cypriot community approved the first and only referendum for the unification of the island while the Greek side overwhelmingly rejected it. The latter was rewarded with admission to the European Union just a week after they collapsed the peace treaty, while the former’s isolation has continued. Promises given by the EU to the Turkish side for a more flexible trade have never been kept.

(Those who are now talking about lifting the arms embargo on the Greek Cyprus should recall that the Annan Plan stipulated a demilitarized island with the presence of a symbolic number of troops from Turkey and Greece.)

All those who have been involved in high politics and lucrative economic deals in this neighborhood should recall that ignoring the rights of the Turkish Cypriots would constitute a serious breach of human rights with potential court cases in the future.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities have already notified these international companies involved in hydrocarbon activities in the disputed waters off Cyprus over its intention to take the matter to the international courts.

Serkan Demirtaş, Cyprus, Drill, East Mediterranean