The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus: A Humanitarian or Reconciliation-Promoting Institution?

The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus: A Humanitarian or Reconciliation-Promoting Institution?

[Nasia Hadjigeorgiou is an Assistant Professor in Transitional Justice and Human Rights at UCLan Cyprus. Her monograph, published by Hart in 2020, focuses on the protection of human rights as a peacebuilding tool in four post-violence societies (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and South Africa).]

The Committee on Missing Persons

The Committee on Missing Persons (CMP or Committee) in Cyprus is an institution that was formally established in 1981, but only became operational in 2006. Officially, its mandate is an exclusively humanitarian one: it must locate, identify and return to their relatives the remains of those who went missing in Cyprus between 1963 and 1974. Over the years, it has adopted a second, much publicised, objective, that of promoting ‘the overall process of reconciliation between both communities’ and assisting in efforts to ‘pave the way for a comprehensive settlement’. While the CMP, through the return of remains, has been quite successful in bringing closure to the relatives, it has had a limited impact in terms of promoting reconciliation (for this claim, also see here). Going forward therefore, it should focus its efforts on what it was originally designed to do and leave peacebuilding to other, better-suited institutions.

The conclusions of this article are based on 34 in-depth interviews conducted with Greek and Turkish Cypriot missing persons’ relatives and key stakeholders, including employees and ex-employees of the CMP and journalists who have been following its work for decades. The research was funded by the International Peace Research Association Foundation.

The CMP is a unique institution. It was formed and continues to operate in a frozen conflict context, in which the two previously warring parties do not consider each other’s elected representatives and institutions as legitimate. Greek Cypriots are in control of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus and Turkish Cypriots have established the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, which is only recognised as a state by Turkey. The leaders of the two communities have been in seemingly futile negotiations, trying to reach a comprehensive peace settlement, for decades. In the midst of this political impasse, the CMP stands as a shiny exception. It is a bicommunal institution, headed by a Greek Cypriot, a Turkish Cypriot and an international member selected by the ICRC, and staffed by scientists from both communities. To date, it has identified and returned the remains of about half of the missing persons from each community, 711 out of 1510 Greek Cypriots and 282 out of 492 Turkish Cypriots.

The CMP as a closure-inducing institution

The Committee’s terms of reference state that it is a humanitarian institution that communicates with missing persons’ families in order to inform them whether their relatives are alive or not, and in the latter case (which are, in fact, all cases) the approximate time of death. Relatives who are contacted, are asked to attend a meeting at the Committee’s laboratory, where they can see the identified remains. At the end of the process, a funeral, which the CMP offers to pay for, is arranged. The promotion of justice is not within the Committee’s mandate. It cannot disclose information on, nor does it search for, the identity of the perpetrators and is not involved in any criminal proceedings.

Even though the disappearances took place in the 1960s and 1970s, 40% of those whose relatives’ remains have still not been returned are clinging on to the hope that they might still be alive. 91% of missing persons’ family members state that their first need is to receive an answer regarding their loved one’s fate. Thus, for most interviewees, the CMP’s return of the remains has been instrumental in putting an end to their ambiguous loss and allowing them to start the grieving process. In this respect, the funeral is an important milestone for family members, who feel that they have performed their religious duties and their relative can finally rest in peace. Many also commented on the benefits of having a physical site they can visit, where they can commemorate the person they lost. Finally, a common theme for those who experienced feelings of closure emanating from the return process, was the CMP staff’s professionalism, their ability to both inspire a sense of confidence in the accuracy of the DNA testing process, and at the same time, to act in a humane manner towards the relatives. 

This is not to say that the Committee was considered to be a total success by everyone who was interviewed. The majority of interviewees was justifiably upset by the CMP’s dormant status for a quarter of a century, time which could have been utilised to locate the missing when memories were fresh, witnesses were alive and huge infrastructure projects had still not been built atop burial sites. Further, relatives complained about the lack of transparency in the Committee’s proceedings and the total lack of updates during the years they had been waiting for the remains. Finally, a minority of relatives from both communities took issue with the fact that the CMP does not have the mandate to prosecute alleged perpetrators and even refrains from declaring a cause of death. Thus, one relative lamented: ‘darkness everywhere and that phrase “unknown cause of death”. [Bodies] perforated with bullets, and … if I show you a death certificate, you’ll lose your mind. A bullet to the brain, and unknown cause of death.’

Despite such shortcomings however, most interviewees concluded that the Committee had a positive impact in terms of promoting closure for them. The CMP’s success in this respect becomes apparent when the responses of those whose relatives’ remains have been returned are contrasted to those who are still waiting. In a 2019 survey of family members’ needs jointly conducted by the CMP and the ICRC, many respondents explained that the passage of time, in the absence of any information about what happened to their relatives, makes the sense of loss grater. The words of a mother of a missing person are illustrative of this: ‘Where can I go to visit my son? It affects me so much…So much more than you can imagine.’ Despite a profound sense of sadness among interviewees who have received their relatives’ remains, the despair reflected in the quote above, has largely been overcome.

The CMP as a reconciliation-promoting institution

Over the years, the CMP has identified a second objective for itself, that of promoting reconciliation between the two communities and encouraging the reaching of a comprehensive peace settlement between them (see here). Although the reasons why the Committee is also expected to operate as a peacebuilding, rather than merely humanitarian, institution have not been explicitly articulated, two come to mind. The first is that since the CMP is a bicommunal body that is currently operating smoothly, it could set an example for other joint initiatives among the two groups, including the federal government of a future united Cyprus. The second is that by identifying missing persons from both communities, the Committee is, in theory at least, bringing Greek and Turkish Cypriot relatives together in their shared pain, while also addressing common misconceptions that perpetrators are exclusively members of one community and victims are members of the other.

Despite expectations of the CMP’s reconciliation-promoting potential and even plausible explanations for these, it has not materialised in practice. Of the 34 persons who were interviewed, including employees and ex-employees of the Committee, not one agreed that the CMP has been successful in reconciling Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Some relatives had a nuanced understanding of why the disappearances had taken place. They mentioned, for example, that crimes had been committed by specific individuals, rather than being endorsed by the other community as a whole, or they explained the disappearances as retaliation for past violence from members of their own community. Others displayed empathy through their frustration towards members of their in-group, who know where missing persons from the out-group are buried, but are not coming forward. In all instances however, family members were quick to point out that none of these reconciliatory ideas were shaped by the CMP’s activities.

To the contrary, some interviewees who had already received their relatives’ remains stated that they sensed a mistrust between CMP employees from different communities, while others were totally unaware of the Committee’s bicommunal character. In the words of one of its employees, ‘[t]he purpose of the CMP is a humanitarian one. The reconciliation agenda is being pushed by some, but this is definitely not its main objective.’ This is also reflected in the experiences of family members themselves, who were unanimous that ‘the CMP has never given the impression to the relatives that it has a broader role than finding the remains, having the funeral and getting the process over and done with.’

A reconciliation-promoting institution with a focus on missing persons could have shared some of the stories of those it has identified, organised common events for relatives from both communities or disseminated information showing that crimes were committed by, and against, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The CMP has not adopted any of these initiatives. One explanation for this is that peacebuilding or the promotion of reconciliation were never within the Committee’s mandate, and it is therefore lacking the tools and expertise to meet these objectives. The Committee is employing archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists and psychologists that are working towards the exhumation, identification and return of remains. It is not employing however, sociologists, political scientists or transitional justice and peacebuilding experts who would be able to imagine and give the CMP a more socially transformative role in the frozen conflict society.

The counterargument to this is that the CMP is not failing to act as a reconciliation-promoting institution because it cannot, but because it does not want to. It was never within the mandate of the Committee to be organising and paying for the missing persons’ funerals, yet it has adopted this role without any problems because none of its members opposed it. Similarly, the CMP was not originally intended to operate as a training centre for scientists from other post-conflict contexts, but it has adopted this role as well, without any apparent difficulty. In fact, even the actual exhumation of missing persons is not mentioned in the Committee’s terms of reference (which merely stipulate that ‘The committee will use its best efforts to draw up comprehensive lists of missing persons of both communities, specifying as appropriate whether they are alive or dead, and in the latter case approximate time of the deaths.’) It appears that, especially during the 25 years it was dormant, the CMP transformed its mandate into that of an institution which locates and exhumes missing persons by sheer pollical willingness alone. In the same way, taking concrete steps to promote reconciliation is also something that the CMP could turn its attention to, but it has so far refrained from doing so. This is arguably because its members prefer not to rock the political boat. The balance between Greek and Turkish Cypriots within the CMP is a delicate one and any further revisions in the way it operates are likely to unsettle this.

A concluding thought

Promoting closure among the relatives of the missing is no easy task. The CMP was given this task and it has performed it well. Claiming that its work is also conductive to reconciliation, without offering any proof of this and in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, detracts attention from what it has actually achieved. In the hypothetical scenario where political will was present and a concrete reconciliation-promoting action plan was implemented, the CMP could have potentially made inroads to peacebuilding and to the reaching of a comprehensive peace settlement. However, as things stand, it is not having this effect. In light of this, it would be more prudent if reconciliation-building was left to an entirely different organisation, like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or an institution that coordinates numerous grassroots efforts, and the CMP was left to do what it has proven it can do best.

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