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Three Advantages of the Annan Peace Plan

With Martti Ahtisaari, International Herald Tribune, 19 April 2004

No peace deal is perfect, but we can say with some confidence - having been involved in quite a few of them in Europe, Africa and Asia - that the Kofi Annan plan before Cypriot voters on April 24 is much better than most.

Compared to some of its recent predecessors in Europe, it has three striking advantages. First, the proposed system for return of refugees and restoration of property rights is detailed and concrete. Within a few months of the Annan plan coming into force, those displaced in 1974 will be able to begin returning to their homes. In three and a half years, over half of them will be able to return under Greek Cypriot administration, and many others will be able to return under Turkish Cypriot administration. The remainder will at least have their property rights restored.

Greek Cypriots are especially concerned on the issue of property rights, but they might contemplate how, nine years on from the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, property rights are still disputed, and only a minority of refugees have returned home, while the story for Serbs displaced from Croatia is even less happy.

Second, the Annan plan convincingly deals with the question of demilitarization. Elsewhere in the European neighborhood, in Northern Ireland for example, the peace process goes on stalling precisely because the commitments of the parties to political cooperation were never sufficiently closely linked to the actions of armed groups on the ground.

By contrast, in the Annan plan, the local forces in Cyprus on both sides are to be completely disbanded. Turkish troops on the island will decrease immediately from today's estimated 45,000 to 6,000, and ultimately 650 or fewer; and will be balanced by Greek troops and monitored closely by the United Nations.

Third, the proposed structure of the government of the United Cyprus Republic makes sense, both in terms of workability and in terms of the imminent prospect of European Union membership. It has its complexities, but compares favorably with the mess of multiple layers of governance with ill-defined and competing powers which exists in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and the neighboring state of Serbia and Montenegro.

Of course, the Annan plan owes its strength in part to the very length of the negotiations. Talks over the shape of a future Cyprus state have been going on for decades, rather than the much briefer time in which the former Yugoslav states have endeavored to settle their constitutions. The effort with Cyprus has clearly paid off. There is much in this plan that both sides will find problematic. But the fact is that there is no better alternative that can be reached by negotiation, now or in the foreseeable future. A failure to seize the opportunity of a peace deal now, against the imminent time-scale of EU membership, will mean years of further stalemate, with no refugees returning anywhere, continued armed presence on the island, and an EU member state government that controls only 60 percent of its own territory.

A vote in favor will deliver a united island inside the European Union, over half of those displaced returning to their homes within a short time, a demilitarized environment, and a much better chance for the longstanding climate of simmering resentment to be transformed into one of peaceful cooperation.

Of course, there is the possibility that only one side will accept the plan, but for the negative voters in such an outcome, international sympathy will be almost nonexistent. Those on that side can expect to be portrayed as spoilers or wreckers, not the best foundation for winning a better deal in the future.

And if both sides vote against, nobody in the international community can be expected to want to put much effort into achieving a permanent resolution of the Cyprus problem for a very long time to come. Nor will it become any easier to find countries willing to deploy personnel to patrol the boundary and keep the peace between them.

Of course the compromises both sides have to accept are not easy, and there will always be those - particularly local leaders - who will find it more comfortable to argue for the status quo than to accept any concession. But this is a unique chance for a lasting, civilized peace, and we hope very much that Cypriots on both sides of the line recognize, before it is too late, just how unique a chance it is.

Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, UN envoy and EU negotiator, and Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia, are chairman and president, respectively, of the International Crisis Group.