How citizens are becoming partners in peacemaking

The two leaders plant olive trees as civil society hold up their banner of support for the Cyprus peace process
The two leaders plant olive trees as civil society hold up their banner of support for the Cyprus peace process (Photo: UNDP-ACT)

In the early 1990s and after two decades of separation, Cypriot civil society activists and academics began to come together to start a dialogue on how they could support a solution to the Cyprus problem. Two civil society leaders, Michalis Avraam and Bulent Kanol, remember the early days of contact between the communities through workshops and conflict resolution trainings held in the UN buffer zone in Nicosia.

“In the early days you needed to be brave to get involved as anyone from the other community was considered the enemy. There was no easy way of meeting and the authorities had to grant us permission to enter the UN buffer zone” recalls Michalis. “It was very exciting to be part of a meaningful action that had to do with the future of Cyprus, however external forces were continuously discrediting our work”, adds Bulent.

Highlights

  • 35,000 people from both communities participated in 490 bi-communal events during 2013.
  • An estimated 4,000 key decision makers from both communities participated in ACT funded events.

Fast forward to today and a lot has changed, both with civil society’s ability to advocate for reconciliation and the context in which civil society operates. At its heart has been the effort to use the power of public dialogue to reverse the participation deficit in the process to resolve the Cyprus problem. Over the years this has seen Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot civil society organisations graduate from being the managers of discrete interactions between like-minded proponents of bi-communal cooperation, to become proactive advocates of island wide reconciliation.

UNDP’s role has been instrumental in creating the space that has allowed the dialogue to flourish in spite of the socio-political barriers. Crucially, the dialogue has helped reverse the limited nature of the negotiating process, which has traditionally only involved small political elites from the two communities, and helped transform the way in which the Cypriot public has interacted with the wider peacemaking project. Before 2008 the Cyprus policy-making elite had ignored civil society as a meaningful actor in the process to find a settlement to the island’s division, while the societal narrative on reconciliation was frequently marginalised. 

The principle interface between civil society and the policy-making elite has been brokered through UNDP’s support to the Cyprus 2015 think tank which has used “peace polling”, and participatory action research approaches to measure public opinion towards the negotiating positions of the two sides. The results of these surveys have been utilized to produce periodic high level policy briefs that have been given directly to the negotiating teams. In January 2012 the Cyprus 2015 team produced a brief which was discussed by the two sides at the Greentree II meeting in New York. The Cyprus 2015 project is the only genuine gauge of ordinary Cypriots’ opinions of their Leaders management of the peace process, and it stands as the only channel providing the leaderships with evidenced-based analysis of constituents’ reactions to the respective negotiating positions.

Ten years of bi-communal projects supported by UNDP in areas as diverse at cultural heritage restoration, the environment, youth and education helped position civil society leaders to support the negotiations when they re-started in 2008. For the first time civil society activists took up prominent positions in various Technical Committees which had been created by the island’s two Leaders in support of the peace process. Similarly CSOs were asked to support many of the officially sanctioned confidence building measures which emerged under the negotiations, including taking the lead in public education activities on the parameters of a federal solution. For example the majority of the members of the Environment Technical Committee were partners or former partners who had worked on UNDP-supported projects. While the Economics Technical Committee drew upon the expertise of the UNDP-supported project team, drawn from the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot Chambers of Commerce, which managed the project on economic interdependence.

Indeed UNDP’s support to the two Chambers of Commerce allowed both organizations to jointly deal with issues such as the Green Line Trade Regulation and business to business links across the divide, and through this helped build a huge degree of trust between the leaderships of both organisations. The Interdependence project was able to produce for the first time a short film which envisaged the possible economic benefits of a settlement. The degree of trust built though joint project work and dialogue ultimately led to a business driven solution to an energy crisis in the in the summer of 2011 when a catastrophic explosion severely damaged the main power station in the Greek Cypriot community, causing rolling power cuts. The two Presidents of the Chambers worked together to broker a deal which allowed the Turkish Cypriot community to supply 20% of the Greek Cypriot electricity demand.

Amid UNDP’s diverse support to civil society was the establishment of the Cyprus Community Media Centre  (CCMC) in 2009.  In the short time since it opened its doors the CCMC has become the major conduit for the island’s burgeoning inter-communal civil society sector, and the focus for how that sector could engage with the peace process. Under UNDP’s umbrella the CCMC helped to institutionalise an alternative discourse on the Cyprus conflict by changing the language relating to inter-communal relations, dispelling the myths of that relationship and demonstrating the benefits of a settlement. This success derives from CCMC’s grassroots base in which ownership and leadership lies with participating civil society organisations, who have formed a solidarity platform for reconciliation advocates that can operate both in the area of policy formulation and at the level practical peace building. The Centre, which is located in the UN Buffer Zone, has fostered “citizen journalism”, enhancing media literacy and expanding the opportunities for CSOs to create and distribute media content. To date the Centre has trained over  200 civil society activists to create their own media and helped over 40 CSOs deliver their advocacy messages through video, audio, websites, social networks and blogs. This is changing the very nature of how civil society communicates with an expanded audience, generating a more inclusive and better informed public dialogue. CCMC has also been able to bridge the divide between civil society and the mainstream/commercial media through the co-production of a television series on civil society activism with a major TV station in the Turkish Cypriot Community. One of its flagship innovation was the successful effort to institutionalise a partnership between a Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot radio station, which led to the creation of the first ever Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot owned radio station in Cyprus.

Many people realize that an active and well-informed civil society is now the only link between the political leaders and the general public. The need for citizens to be partners in the peace process has been championed by successive reports from the UN Secretary General, which have made direct requests to the island’s two Leaders to fully involve civil society in the peacemaking process. The coming of age of an inter-communal civil society sector is evidenced by the fact that the Leaders supported the opening of a civil society house in the UN Buffer Zone, the Home for Cooperation, while the Representatives of the Leaders in the negotiations have spoken publicly about the importance of civil society in supporting reconciliation. This public affirmation of the role of civil society represents a watershed in the attitude of Cypriot policy makers to the role of citizens and civil society organizations in the peacemaking process and is now part of the changed narrative on the island, in which dialogue about reconciliation is no longer on the margins of the public debate.