Cultural rights are not for sale

The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when the political and ethnic differences between the Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots came to a head in a coup inspired by the military junta ruling in Greece and the subsequent invasion of the island by the Turkish army. Over the last 42 years, there have been numerous attempts made to resolve the Cyprus problem and reunite the island. The latest round of UN-sponsored negotiations is viewed as promising, but a final settlement remains elusive. Since 2003, when the UN Green Line was opened and it became possible for members of the separated communities to cross into the island’s respective sides, efforts have been made to bridge cultural differences and promote good relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune visited Cyprus recently to assess the exercise of cultural rights by the island’s inhabitants. Global Sources Magazine reports from the divided capital, Nicosia.

Cultural rights are every bit as important as the political and property rights that dominate the current reunification talks between Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders, Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights, told a gathering at a cultural center located inside Nicosia’s Green Line buffer zone earlier this month. Summarizing her 10-day tour of the island, Bennoune said, “the current political situation in Cyprus creates many obstacles to the exercise of cultural rights,” stating that a number of unjustified restrictions on access to cultural heritage sites continue to exist and that they are “harmful” for the island’s future.

Wall art inside the Green Line buffer zone in Nicosia. [Reuters]
Wall art inside the Green Line buffer zone in Nicosia. [Reuters]
“Cultural rights, including the right to enjoy and access cultural heritage shall not be considered as a bargaining chip,” Bennoune said.

Throughout her presentation, Bennoune stressed how the importance of a shared cultural heritage could help to bridge the physical and psychological boundaries. Since 1997, the UN has been working within the concept of ‘bi-communalism’ in an effort to build cooperation and understanding between two difference ethnic and religious groups that have seen each as adversaries for nearly a thousand years. But, according to Bennoune, who has held her post since November 2015, the bi-communal framework “is insufficient today to characterize the complexity of this diverse society.”

Cross-cultural gains have gradually been made and can be seen in the form of restoration and preservation works that are taking place across the island at such monuments as Apostolos Andreas monastery at the tip of the Karpass Peninsula, the Paphos Hamam and Othello’s Tower within the citadel at Famagusta.

Indeed, Cyprus’ long history has seen the coming and going of numerous ethnic groups with a variety of cultural practices. Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots make up the majority of the island’s population, but there are historic minorities as well as newly arrived groups represented on the island including “Ahmadis, Alevis, Armenians, Buddhists, Copts, ethnic Greeks from the Black Sea, Kurds, Latins, Maronites, Roma, Turkish nationals, and others of mixed identities,” Bennoune said in her report.  Modern Cypriot society is further comprised of migrants, expatriates, refugees and asylum-seekers.

“What Cypriots need for the reconciliation process is to exercise their human rights,” Bennoune said. “Each person should have a right to self-identify,” but she recommended that the younger generations in Cyprus also experience social interaction in order to overcome the “narrative of distrust” and other obstacles that jeopardize the possibilities of a peaceful future.

Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights. [TED]
Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights. [TED]
One issue that was raised by Turkish-Cypriots during Bennoune’s discussions with them was the “perceived efforts by Turkey to transform their culture, to Islamize their society in ways that do not reflect the current more secular and tolerant local cultural practices,” she said. She cited complaints by Turkish-Cypriots of mosques being built in ways not in keeping with traditional architecture plus “the creation of religious schools with textbooks produced elsewhere.”

Bennoune grew up in Algeria and personally experienced the fear spread by Islamic fundamentalism during the 1990s when her outspoken father, a university professor, received death threats from religious extremists. She published ‘Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here’ in August 2013, a book that addresses resistance to fundamentalism within Muslim communities in Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Mali, Niger and Russia. The book seeks to amplify the voices of those speaking out against Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, her TEDx talk ‘When people of Muslim heritage challenge fundamentalism’, which is based on the book, has received more than 1.3 million views on the internet.

While efforts are being made to engage the two sides, the various forms of extremism that exist in Cyprus are “peripheral but worrying,” Bennoune said, adding that they could become an issue in the future. She noted that the Greek-Cypriot far-right nationalist party ELAM, which has modeled itself on Greece’s Golden Dawn and which has been publically supported by the Orthodox Church, could create problems. There have been sporadic neo-Nazi or far-right attacks on cultural events and sites. In addition to this, attempts by the Turkish-Cypriot authorities to restrict access to religious sites in northern Cyprus is of concern, Bennoune said, adding that there is an eminent need to amplify “voices of tolerance.”

Reconstruction work underway at Apostolos Andreas Monastery in northern Cyprus. [Tripadvisor]
Reconstruction work underway at Apostolos Andreas Monastery in northern Cyprus. [Tripadvisor]
While she cited several incidents in which cultural sites had been vandalized or damaged, she said she also encountered people on both sides of the island who were working to safeguard the island’s cultural heritage, regardless of its religious or ethnic identity.

Cyprus “is not an easy place,” Bennoune said in the conclusion of her presentation, and added that what Cypriots and their leaders choose to do “will shape the cultural rights of all those who inhabit the island for years to come,” adding that the right actions could “even set an important example for the entire world in turbulent times.”

Bennoune’s report on Cyprus was presented to the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017.

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