An Israeli NGO has assisted Cypriots in filing a war crimes complaint with the International Criminal Court prosecutor against Turkey over its occupation of Northern Cyprus. The complaint, filed on Tuesday and referred to as a communication, was made on the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s occupation of the northern part of Cyprus.
The NGO, Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, has been involved in a wide range of human-rights cases and substantially assisted in researching and drafting the complaint on behalf of Greek Cypriot groups, including Cypriots Against Turkish War Crimes (CATWR) and MEP Costas Mavrides.
CATWR is an association comprised mainly of Cypriots and refugees from the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
The petitioners call on the ICC prosecutor to open an investigation into ongoing alleged Turkish crimes against Cyprus, in particular the continued maintenance and establishment of Turkish settlements in the occupied territory.
The complaint alleges that “the Turkish occupation is one of the most brazen settlement enterprises in modern times.”
Around 50,000 Turkish citizens lived in the now Turkish part of Cyprus in 1996. Since then, as a result of Turkey’s aggressive policies – including alleged forced “displacement” of Cypriots from their homes and the alleged “murder or disappearances of thousands of Greek Cypriots” – have increased the number of Turkish settlers to 100,000, who now constitute around half of the population in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
The communication describes the Turkish government’s systematic policy to bolster its control over Northern Cyprus, encouraging ethnic Turkish immigration while acting aggressively to transfer native Cypriots out of the territory.
The case could have vast repercussions as it puts Turkey on the defensive in the arena of lawfare – waging war against adversaries through law – for the first time, an arena that Turkey has routinely tried to use against Israel.
Turkey has sponsored war crimes trials against Israelis in its own country relating to the Mavi Marmara raid in 2010, and reportedly sponsored the Comoros Islands’ May 2013 complaint to the ICC against Israelis.
At the same time, some might question the wisdom of setting anti-settlement precedents by going after Turkey for settlement and the removal of locals from an “occupied” territory in light of threats by the Palestinians to go after Israel before the ICC on its settlements.
Shurat HaDin said the two situations are “apples and oranges.”
Regarding the complaint against Turkey, even if neither the UN Security Council nor a state party – in this case Cyprus – officially asks for a war crimes investigation, the ICC prosecutor can still initiate an investigation and eventually an indictment if provided with a complaint which applies to an ICC member state.
Cyprus joined the ICC upon its establishment in 2002 and since no nation besides Turkey itself recognizes the legitimacy of Turkish sovereignty in Northern Cyprus, the petitioners say the ICC has jurisdiction over any crimes committed in occupied Cyprus.
A statement regarding the complaint said the demand for a war crimes investigation seeking to “end the impunity Turkey has enjoyed for its criminal conduct since it invaded the island Republic on July 20, 1974” was unprecedented.
The complaint points out that Turkey’s settlement activity since 1974 – but more importantly since 2002, which is the earliest year for which the ICC can prosecute – in Northern Cyprus is “well documented,” having been declared as illegal by the European Court of Human Rights and the UN.
The statement added that despite this illegality, “and despite its occupation of an EU member state, Turkey and its leaders have avoided any legal consequences for their crimes.”
It said an investigation by the ICC prosecutor would be the “first attempt to shine the harsh light of international criminal justice on the Turkish occupation.”
Among the many obstacles to successfully moving forward with an investigation is the fact that the ICC only handles a short list of war crimes specified in its governing Rome Statute, which went into effect in 2002.
The complaint claims that Turkey is in “blatant and systematic violation” of Article 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute, which prohibits an occupying power from directly or indirectly transferring its civilians into the occupied territory – that is, importing settlers.
The petitioners contend that Turkey has “openly done just that continuously since the invasion.” They allege that Turkey has actively recruited, encouraged and transported Turks from rural areas of the mainland to come settle the occupied territory.
Moreover, they argue that the current “demographic magnitude of the settler establishment threatens the feasibility” of a negotiated solution to the conflict.
According to Mavrides, “the settlement and other crimes committed in the occupied part of Cyprus by Turkish officers is not a political issue. It is a matter of international law and justice.”
“Now, it is up to the ICC to investigate the facts and decide in favor of civilization and human rights,” he said, adding that hopefully the ICC would bring “the criminals to justice.”
As a boy Mavrides was forced to flee Northern Cyprus along with his family in the face of the Turkish invasion, and his home area has remained under Turkish occupation ever since.