German parliamentary report challenges Turkey’s legal stance in Cyprus

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed plans for the former seaside resort of Varosha in Northern Cyprus are contrary to international law, according to a study by the German Bundestag's Scientific Service (WD) seen by Ahval ahead of publication. The 23-page legal study was commissioned by Bundestag member Sevim Dağdelen from the leftist Die Linke party and chairwoman of the German-Turkish parliamentary group.

An exert from AAn excerpt from a recent report by the German Bundestag's Scientific Service (WD) on the legal status of Cyprus


On Oct. 6, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) reopened a stretch of beach and several avenues in the “ghost town” of Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta, located in the no-man's land of the divided Mediterranean island. Cyprus has been split between the TRNC, recognised only by Turkey, and the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member that controls the southern two-thirds of the Island, since a Turkish military intervention in 1974.

Varosha was once Cyprus’ most important seaside resort, popular with tourists from all over the world, including celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But since the flight of its predominantly Greek Cypriot population of around 39,000 people in the face of the Turkish invasion, the town has been largely deserted, slowly decaying on the demarcation line, guarded by Turkish soldiers.

Tourists can now visit the city of ruins, violating the status-quo established in the conflict’s aftermath. But what does this mean in terms of international law?

The Bundestag study supports the Republic of Cyprus’ claim over Varosha on a previously underappreciated legal basis, according to Hubert Faustmann, a political scientist at the University of Nicosia, who speaks of a “new, never-before-heard argument with international consequences”. 

Returning Varosha to the Republic of Cyprus has been considered an essential part of all United Nations-led efforts to solve the Cyprus problem. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared this requirement insignificant. After 46 years, neither Turkey nor the TRNC can tolerate “diplomatic games” anymore, he said. during a visit to the island’s north last month: "It is a fact that Varosha is a territory of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus."

According to Erdoğan, a reunification of Cyprus is futile. Instead, he demanded a “two-state solution”, claiming that the establishment of separate sovereign states must be negotiated with the Greeks in the south, the Turks in the north.

Ankara insists that the reopening of Varosha took place in accordance with international legal principles. But Greek Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades condemned it as a “provocation without precedent”. 

“Ankara has absolutely no respect for international law, European principles and values, and its obligations toward the EU,” he said. 

The U.N. Secretary-General, the European Union and the United States support Anastasiades’ stance, referring to the three U.N. Security Council resolutions on Varosha since 1984. These state that any and all attempts to resettle Varosha with anyone other than the former population are "inadmissible", and that administration of the area must be transferred to the UNFICYP peacekeeping force.

Generally, U.N. Security Council resolutions are a legally difficult matter. The opinion of Bundestag's WD is that most resolutions in themselves are merely “soft law” and "non-binding recommendations".

"They primarily contain appeals and requests to the states concerned to work towards restoring a certain situation.”

Criticising the disregard of “soft law” as a “violation of international law” would therefore be “legally incorrect” and not enforceable, according to the WD. This means that, by solely referencing the U.N. resolutions on Varosha, Turkey is technically right in claiming they are legally “non-binding under international law”.

However, the legal experts at the Bundestag have one big caveat: U.N. resolutions are by no means irrelevant as they “largely reflect the (political) convictions of the international community”. U.N. Security Council resolutions are therefore to be interpreted as "concretisations" and “specifications” of the Cyprus Treaty of 1960.

Unlike the later U.N. resolutions, the Cyprus Treaty of 1960 is guaranteed by ex-colonial power the United Kingdom. The "internationally binding text of the treaty” signed by Turkey and Greece, expressly forbids "any activity… to directly or indirectly promote the division of the island". 

An exert from AAn excerpt from a recent report by the German Bundestag's Scientific Service (WD) on the legal status of Cyprus

This is exactly what Erdoğan now ultimately demands: The division of Cyprus under international law. "In this sense, the opening up and the Turkish Cypriot resettlement of Varosha appears to be an impermissible step towards cementing the division of Cyprus”, warns the WD.

Two experts consulted by Ahval confirm the interpretation by their WD colleagues. "With reference to the guarantee agreement of 1960, the Bundestag report shows that the separation of Cyprus in two violates international law, which the U.N. resolutions underline," says Norman Paech, emeritus professor at Hamburg University. “Therefore, opening and entering Varosha is against international law.”

Faustmann agrees: "According to the (WD) report, the opening of Varosha violates the guarantee treaty of 1960 and it is therefore contrary to international law." This would subsequently make the U.N. resolutions legally binding.

"This interpretation is new and significant. It is astonishing that the Greek Cypriots have not yet invoked it. Maybe they don’t know it,” Faustmann said. And the wider implications of the WD’s conclusions are potentially revelatory: “U.N. resolutions are therefore essentially only recommendations - as far as they are not based on earlier internationally binding treaties. This interpretation could also be applied, for example, to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and other cases," he said.

The WD supports the German Bundestag in its work, and its reports are therefore not legally binding. But according to Dağdelen, the study means that “these and other permanent provocations and threats of war by the Turkish president must not remain without consequences”.

“The German government must therefore implement a comprehensive arms embargo and must stop financial aid for Turkey, also at European level.”