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Conceptualising the Land-Conflict-Restitution Nexus: the Case of Cyprus*

BY PROF. ROGER ZETTER** | 05.06.2011

All refugees and displaced persons have the right to have restored to them any housing, land and/or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived, or to be compensated for any housing, land and/or property that is factually impossible to restore as determined by an independent, impartial tribunal. Pinhiero Principle No. 2, 2005 [1], [2]

Resolving land and property issues lies at the crux of post-conflict reconstruction and peace building strategies. Construing it as a core element in Galtung’s conception of a “positive peace” sustained by co-operation between groups and nations [3], it sits alongside truth and reconciliation commissions and war crimes tribunals in the contemporary peace building canon. The Pinhiero Principle cited above define the two specific ways in which resolution may be achieved: restitution of land and property to people forcibly displaced by violence and war (and implicitly population return), or compensation for loss (where return is impossible). Yet the protracted nature of the Cyprus case – unresolved since the 1974 Turkish invasion and division of the island – and before that the example of Palestinian dispossession, reinforce the point that resolving land issues is also one of the most intractable challenges to peace building, and is rarely successfully accomplished even where there has been proactive engagement by international actors as has been the case in Bosnia-Herzogovina (BiH).

map_cyprusConditions for post-conflict peace building vary enormously in the scale, tasks, capacities, timescales and modalities of reconstruction and recovery. Moreover the nature and intensity of violence and the recession of conflict materially affect the form and progress towards peace and reconstruction. The modes of intervention and the institutional fabric of mediation, such as property commissions will vary enormously.

Given these specificities, the challenge is to develop a set of normative principles by which to unpack and analyse the land-conflict-restitution nexus which can help shape solutions to land restitution problems in post conflict peace processes. To do this I conceptualise the land-conflict-restitution nexus using a threefold typology – land-as-conflict, land-in-conflict and land-after-conflict. This paper then develops this model by exploring the subject of property restitution in the Cyprus peace process and by reference to comparative evidence from elsewhere. I argue that by tethering land and property restitution to this wider context, the policy making and institutional challenges of achieving viable settlement of property restitution issues is brought into shaper focus. This in turn may help to seek resolution of long-term, intractable situations of population displacement.

  • Land, Property and Peacebuilding

Land interests and land policy intersect most aspects of a country’s cultural, social, economic and political structures: they play a critical role in shaping a country’s identity and its development. Moreover the rights-based discourse, which dominates contemporary political debates about development, increasingly embraces the significance of land and property rights [4]. Understanding the intricate relationship between people, land and rights is of course essential if we are to appreciate societal needs and expectations.

However, it is not just the conjuncture of land and development which increasingly preoccupies policy makers and researchers. The relationship between land issues, the proliferation of violent conflicts and their resolution through post conflict reconstruction, have become progressively more significant in academic, policy and donor discourse. This is because land is contested territory, both literally and metaphorically [5].

In Central America (in the late 1980s and 1990s), East Timor (in the mid and late 1990s), and far less successfully in the Balkans (from the late 1990s to the present), the issue of land both permeates and mediates all the ‘r’ processes – reconstruction, rebuilding peace, return, reintegration. Earlier precursors of current concerns are the international and national claims commissions and tribunals – for example the still extant German Forced Labour Reparations undertaken by the ILO – as well as the claims of the Palestinians since 1948.

Yet, despite these contemporary and historical examples, there has been limited systematic review either at a policy/programme level, or in terms of academic analysis of land issues – or HLP (housing land and property) rights as they are currently termed. Now, as the lens of the rights-based discourse increasingly focuses on restorative justice, governments and intergovernmental agencies view land and property restitution as one of the principal means to reverse, or compensate for, the social and political injustices caused by expropriation and forced displacement.

Accordingly, land and property issues now receive considerable prominence [6]. Marking this transition to centre stage, the Pinhiero Principles are the culmination of more than a decade of international and local action in support of the emerging right to housing and property restitution as a crucial remedy to forced displacement. Indeed, we now recognise that land and property issues are part of a much wider humanitarian and peace building enterprise. Cyprus is one of 20 unresolved cases – and one of the most protracted – cited in the Pinhiero report, involving perhaps nine million people from Colombia to Sri Lanka, Croatia (100,000) Azerbaijan (750,000) Kosovo (200,000). Excluded from this total are Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine: in reality therefore, land and property issues, in some form or other, underlie the situation of most if not all the world’s 50 or 60 million displaced people.

Nevertheless, whilst the issue permeates humanitarian agendas of conflict, displacement and peace building, this contestation (and thus solutions) has largely been treated on a case by case basis to date. The achievement of the Pinhiero Principles, although challenged for their somewhat mechanistic and instrumental limitations, is that they do provide a normative framework of policy and practice guidance (consistent with state practice) to address property restitution problems caused by population displacement. What is lacking, however, is a more nuanced conceptualisation of the land-conflict-restitution nexus which the Principles seek to address and which would help to reinforce their normative value. My threefold typology – land-as-conflict, land-in-conflict and land-after-conflict – attempts to provide this conceptualisation.

  • Setting the Context – Cyprus and the land problem
Cyprus, a former British colony, became independent in 1960. A complex bi-communal power-sharing constitution balancing the interests of the 80% Greek-Cypriot majority with the 20% Turkish-Cypriot minority broke down within three years. Episodes of low-level ethnic violence precipitated the separation of the previously ethnically mixed settlement pattern of the island, and the Turkish-Cypriot population was increasingly confined to separate enclaves [7]. In 1974, following an unsuccessful coup against the President, inspired by the Greek military dictatorship, Turkey – one of the three guarantor powers of Cyprus’ independence and neutrality [8] – invaded and occupied the northern 40% of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriot population in the volatile post-coup period. In a short space of time about 40% of the island’s population of 570,000 became forcibly displaced within the island – some 50,000 Turkish Cypriots seeking refuge in the north and about 180,000 Greek Cypriots fled the invading army to the south [9]. Added to the pre-1974 displacement of Turkish Cypriots about 50% of the island’s population in total lost property and were displaced. Since then the island has been permanently divided into two mono-ethnic zones with a (now residual) UN peace keeping force maintaining a ‘green line’ across the country. Currently there are “about 210,000 displaced persons and their heirs, at least one fifth of the island’s population” [currently 1.1 million] [10], [11].


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* Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation and Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 1

** Professor Roger Zetter is Director of the Refugee Studies Centre in the University of Oxford. He has over 30 years research, publication, teaching and consultancy experience in forced migration, refugee and humanitarian issues. He has worked on these issues in sub-Saharan Africa and in Europe, having completed his DPhil on Cyprus in 1987. From 1988-2001, he was Founding Editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies published by Oxford University Press.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN


[1] Approved by UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights under the auspices of  the  Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) August 2005.

[2] UN 2005.

[3] Galtung 1975:29.

[4] see for example, Deininger and Feder 1998; DFID 2000; Durand-Lasserve and Royston 2002; Jones 2003; Payne 2002; World Bank 2004; Zetter 2004a.

[5] Pantuliano 2009; Zetter 2005.

[6] RSQ 2000; Fitzpatrick 2002; Zetter 2005; Pantuliano 2009; Chetail 2009.

[7] Patrick 1976.

[8] Britain and Greece were the other two guarantor powers

[9] Inevitably numbers of those displaced are disputed and some of the displaced returned to the border areas after cessation of fighting. An IDMC report of 2007 assesses that there are now 165,000 Greek-Cypriots and 45,000 Turkish-Cypriots internally displaced (IDMC 2007:52)

[10] International Crisis Group 2010:i.

[11] Although the Greek Cypriots were labelled as refugees and this label has endured, by international law they are not refugees – not having crossed an international border – but internally displaced within their own country.

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