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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 8 August 2015
CYPRUS 10 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 8 AUGUST 2015 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Dealing with the past For the first time in years, optimism is a word being used about resolving ‘the Cyprus issue’, but, asks Christalla Yakinthou, what needs to happen to avoid another false dawn? The two leaders have recently made ground-breaking statements about mistakes made on both sides in the past. There has also been debate in the media and in the public about truth and reconciliation in Cyprus. Recent discussions have focused on whether we need a truth commission in Cyprus, and if we do, when that should happen. But to have these discussions, we need to know more about what truth and reconciliation is and how it works. In Cyprus we often hear: "don't stir up the past". But the reality is that how we see the past shapes how we look at where we are today, and it certainly shapes what we think a safe future looks like. To understand why we have this provision or that provision in the peace plan, we need to also know the stories underneath why those provisions are so important to one community or the other. They are important because they are the accumulation of individual experiences that have become community memories and fears. Many of these provisions make one side or the other feel safe, or accept things as fair. If we don't know why the fears exist or how they came to be, it is also harder for citizens to feel satisfied with the details of a peace plan. Make no mistake, periods of transition are frightening, they are traumatic, and they bring out insecurities without adding anything disputed like the past to the mix. But anything that hides how we got here in the first place is always going to raise doubts. In a situation of instability, this will only add to fears that sit inside people's hearts and their minds. But if it is done right, a process of dealing with the past can build faith in the values that underpin this new vision of a whole Cyprus. 'Truth and reconciliation' is a short-hand term for a process of both seeking and speaking the many truths about the violence of the Cy- prus conflict, how people experienced it, the different versions of history, and how it brought us to where we are today. It is not about discrediting my pain or your memories. It is about adding more voices, and thinking about what the sum of all those voices say. Truth and reconciliation commissions usually describe what happened, who was responsible, and the motives that were involved. Their aim is to investigate and publicly acknowledge widespread human rights abuses. After they set their mandate, establish their structure and train their staff, they usually begin by going across the country taking individual statements. They include victims and survivors from all over, and usually end in some form of a report that is made public. In the most successful commissions, the whole country is part of the process. In failed cases, people are isolated. ‘Truth and reconciliation’ is a short-hand term for a process of both seeking and speaking the many truths about the violence of the Cyprus conflict ... The truth-seeking process opens up new possibilities for understanding what happened in the past by creating a space to tell stories that have not been previously heard. This is particularly important when entrenched political narratives are the only story we hear and have been afraid to question. Truth commissions do not prosecute but instead they focus on establishing a re- Cypriots mourn for 17 people whose remains were found in a mass grave and identified through DNA in Nicosia last month. PHOTO: EPA/KATIA CHRISTODOULOU. cord of human rights violations during a particular period. Truth and reconciliation are not the same thing. The theory is that truth-seeking and truth-telling can lead to reconciliation, but this is not always the case. Anger and hurt often continue. But two things are absolutely certain: First, to forgive or to seek forgiveness, you need to understand. To understand, you need to hear things that are usually difficult for you to hear. If there is no honest truth-seeking process, there will be no meaningful reconciliation, because reconciliation is based largely on forgiveness. Second, you cannot choose to hear only one side of the story. And you cannot say from the beginning 'I will reconcile with one group, but not with another'. Reconciliation, when it does happen, comes from a process of deeper understanding. It takes its own route, and you cannot guarantee that route from the outset. It is not always smooth, and it cannot be done in a rush. The process of truth-seeking and truth-telling has actually been going on for decades now, but the voices speaking about the past have been few. Investigative journalists, NGOs and civil society initiatives by families of the miss- Relatives hold photos of loved ones who went missing during the Turkish invasion of 1974. PHOTO: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS ARCHIVES. ing and martyred have been asking about what happened to their loved ones, and some answers have come. People have been telling parts of what they know for a long time now, as the CMP has been recovering, identifying and returning remains. To be clear, the CMP is not a truth commission, and it does not provide the right basis for one. A formal truth and reconciliation commission will usually start after a peace agreement is signed, not before. While it is important to discuss the past and what we need to know now, we should not underestimate how fragile peace processes are, and how easily they are derailed by nationalist agendas. It is a long process, and it needs to be. Most commissions, once they've started work, have taken between six months and two years to do their work, but the most recent example of good practice, Tunisia's Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, has a mandate of four years. This is because almost all commissions need much longer than expected to do their work well. To go from town to town, from village to village, takes time. To gain people's trust takes time. To weave together our broken stories of the conflict, how we experienced it, and what caused us to be here today, takes time. A truth and reconciliation commission does important work. It provides the key to why we are here, in this position, with this particular peace agreement. It forms the basis for us to think about what kind of future we want for our country. And if it is done well, with care and with proper planning, it can help develop empathy between communities that do not yet trust each other. * Dr Christalla Yakinthou works with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, UK. She is currently advising the International Centre for Transitional Justice on its work in Kenya.
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