The ICC’s double standard that needs to be addressed

4 mins read

By Kate Hart

The concept of “settler colonialism” has been applied with an emphasis on Israel in recent decades, while being neglected regarding the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the subsequent displacement of Cypriots. Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus prompted the displacement of at least 210,000 Greek and Turkish Cypriots from their homes. Since then, Turkey has encouraged the migration of ethnic Turks from Anatolia to the island while impeding the return of Greek Cypriots to their homes, and transferring native Cypriots out of their territory. As of 2017, there were roughly 30,000 Turkish troops in Cyprus controlling about one-third of the island. There are more Turkish settlers in Cyprus today than Turkish Cypriots. Thousands of Turkish Cypriots facing grave conditions have staged protests against President Erdogan’s interference in internal affairs in recent years. Even though these are war crimes and crimes against humanity according to international law, Cypriots did not get the treatment they deserve from the International Criminal Court yet.

While Cyprus was a state with clear borders when Turkey invaded, Israel became an independent state after the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 in 1947. This resolution divided the British Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states and now nearly 700,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Many human rights organizations have accused Israel of perpetrating injustices in the Palestinian territory. For instance, Amnesty International has called Israeli settlements “institutionalized discrimination” against Palestinians. In March 2021, the former ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a formal investigation into Israel’s alleged war crimes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip after the ICC ruled it had jurisdiction in those areas.

Neither Turkey nor Israel have ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, whose primary mission is to establish a system of accountability for serious international crimes such as genocide or forceable transfer of population. Faced with the Turkish President’s call for a two-state solution in Cyprus, the former ICC Prosecutor had committed to deciding a case regarding the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, but she failed to do so before her term ended. Unlike Israel and Turkey, Cyprus joined the ICC in the early 2000s. Bensouda did not have to consider the same jurisdictional issues in Cyprus’s case as it did with Israel, so delaying a decision on the matter ignited suspicion from stakeholders.

The government of Cyprus never referred a case on the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus to the former ICC Prosecutor, which could explain why the investigation was not fast-tracked. The first complaint calling Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus into question was filed on behalf of a Cypriot Member of the European Parliament in July 2014, whereas Palestine directly asked for ICC intervention in January 2015. Northern Cyprus depends on Turkey for economic, political, and military support, because of its lack of international recognition. The President of Northern Cyprus, Ersin Tatar, backed by Erdogan, has recently pushed for a two-state solution in Cyprus. Turkey has become more bellicose under President Erdogan’s rule, prompting EU pressure to avoid antagonizing the volatile leader. It is also important to note that the prospect of Turkey complying with an ICC investigation of its conduct in Cyprus is dismal.

In addition, last summer, Turkey welcomed the ICC’s ruling on jurisdiction over Palestinian territories, calling it a step toward ensuring that Israel is “held accountable” for the crimes it committed against those living in the Palestinian territories. But in the absence of a decision on the Turkish occupation of self-declared independent Northern Cyprus, the ICC’s double standard must be called into question.

Countless human rights organizations and social movements worldwide have criticized Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. The Palestinian-led BDS movement, which promotes boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel, is one of the main critics. Prominent U.S. politicians, including Senator Sanders and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar have questioned the U.S. government’s support for Israel. Groups like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch constantly release detailed reports on Israel’s conduct in Palestinian territories.

In contrast, reports on Turkey’s malfeasance in Cyprus at the expense of unification efforts led by thousands of Cypriots are few and far between. The Union of Cypriots is among the organizations that treat Turkey with the same severity as Israel by calling the situation in both Palestine and Cyprus “invasion and occupation.” The Union of Cypriots deemed the October 2020 elections resulting in a victory for the Turkish-backed leader illegitimate because Turkish settlers far outnumber Turkish Cypriots in Northern Cyprus. Even with support from a small number of organizations like the Union of Cypriots, most parties in Cyprus are reluctant to boycott elections out of fear of retaliation. A few Cypriot groups either directly or indirectly boycotted the most recent parliamentary elections in Northern Cyprus, citing Turkey’s “increasing involvement” in their politics. So far, these groups have been unwilling to accuse Turkey of perpetrating settler colonialism in public.

Sovereign states often violate international law thinking that there will be no accountability. By prioritizing Israeli settlements over the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, the ICC is fortifying criticisms that the Court has become a political tool. Despite the Court’s lack of jurisdiction over Israel, human rights groups repeatedly called for a probe into Israeli settlements. The ICC has ignored Turkish settlement activity within its jurisdiction for far too long. Human rights groups must bring the same level of attention to Turkey’s treatment of Cypriots by holding events, staging rallies, and garnering media attention. The U.N. Security Council can invite the ICC to exercise its jurisdiction over Cyprus, but veto powers would certainly render this measure futile. Bringing Turkey before the ICC will require more than garnering public support through various campaigns. Stakeholders must pressure EU leaders to require compliance with international law on human rights as it pertains to Cyprus for EU admission. EU leaders could make ICC membership a prerequisite for Turkey joining the Union. The ICC can also use precedent set by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, which awarded monetary damages to Cyprus in 2014 for human rights violations committed by Turkey. Cyprus, like Palestine, deserves to have its case heard by the international community after many years of brazen violations committed against its people. 

Cover photo: Sang Hyun Cho

Kate Hart is a PhD candidate in political science, researcher and activist based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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