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Güzelyurtlu and Others v. Cyprus and Turkey: An Important Legal Development or a Step Too Far?

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recently delivered a judgment on a case concerning the murder of a Turkish Cypriot family. Nasia Hadjigeorgiou examines how this has broken new legal ground, while raising questions about the Court’s ability to address legal challenges in contexts of frozen conflict.

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In January 2019, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in Güzelyurtlu and others v. Cyprus and Turkey (Güzelyurtlu). This case breaks new legal ground, while questioning the Court’s ability to address legal challenges in contexts of frozen conflict.

In order to understand the complexities of Güzelyurtlu, a brief explanation of the political situation on the island of Cyprus is necessary. The island is inhabited by Greek Cypriots, making up about 80%, and Turkish Cypriots, consisting of 18%, of the overall population. Since Turkey’s 1974 military invasion of Cyprus, it has been de facto divided in two: while the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) technically retains sovereignty over the whole of the island, it only exercises effective control over the south, which is inhabited mostly by Greek Cypriots. Turkish Cypriots primarily reside in the north of the island that remains under the military, economic and political control of Turkey, despite having declared itself as the independent ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (‘TRNC’). In compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 541 (1983) the ‘TRNC’ has not been recognised by any state, except Turkey.

Güzelyurtlu arose from the murder of a Turkish Cypriot family, which was (rather exceptionally) residing in the south of Cyprus. Following police investigations by the RoC, 6 Turkish Cypriots and 2 Turkish nationals were identified as being allegedly involved in the murder. However, by the time these investigations were completed, the suspects had returned to the north of the island and out of the RoC’s effective control.

At the same time, the ‘TRNC’ police started their own murder investigations and identified the same suspects. Problematically, Cyprus’s de facto division and the lack of recognition and cooperation between the RoC and the ‘TRNC’ meant that the suspects were in the north of the island, while the physical evidence linking them to the murder was in the south. There was no way of bringing the two together and beginning the prosecution process.

Consequently, the deceased persons’ relatives brought a case both against the RoC and Turkey (as the state that exercises effective control in the north of Cyprus). The accusation was of failure to carry out an effective investigation into their family members’ deaths, in violation of the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In an interesting development of the law, the Chamber held, and the Grand Chamber ultimately confirmed, that the two respondent states had an obligation to cooperate with each other in order to carry out an effective investigation into the victims’ deaths. The Court had already held that such an obligation to cooperate existed (notably, in another case against Cyprus). But, surprisingly, considering the longevity of the frozen conflict on the island, this was the first case in which it was held that cooperation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot authorities was necessary.

Moreover, although this was a rather straightforward case legally speaking, it was politically very controversial, because cooperation between police forces of different states is inextricably connected with international recognition of these states. As expected, while the ‘TRNC’ tried to capitalise on the case and force the RoC to directly engage with it, the RoC was justifiably hesitant to act in any way that lent support to an illegal regime operating within its territory.

Although the Chamber and Grand Chamber agreed that there was an obligation to cooperate for the effective investigation of the death, there was disagreement as to what this obligation entailed. Initially, the Chamber found that the unwillingness of the RoC and the ‘TRNC’ to cooperate (the former by refusing to grant over evidence and the latter for not extraditing the suspects) resulted in a violation of Article 2 by both respondent states.

Arguably, this ruling asked too much from the RoC. Sharing evidence with the ‘TRNC’ so that the suspects could be tried in ‘TRNC’ courts would undermine its position – a position confirmed in numerous UN resolutions – that it is the only legitimate government on the island. This argument was taken more seriously by the Grand Chamber, which held that the RoC did not violate the procedural right to life, as it had done everything that was reasonably expected of it.

Conversely, Turkey was found to be in violation of Article 2. It had blatantly ignored all attempts at communication, and requests for the extradition of the suspects to the areas under the RoC’s control.

This outcome is undoubtedly more satisfying to the RoC. Yet, it potentially unduly lowers the bar of human rights protection, because all Turkey had to do to comply with its obligations was to respond to the extradition request. Even a negative response would have been sufficient for the Court, although it would not have actually resulted in a more effective investigation of the deaths.

Güzelyurtlu breaks new legal ground by expanding the obligation to cooperate in contexts of frozen conflicts. In light of the ECtHR’s tendency to transplant case law from Cyprus to other frozen conflict contexts, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, it is likely that we will see more such cases being adjudicated in the future.

Yet, if the Chamber judgment is criticised for being too interventionist, while the Grand Chamber judgment is criticised for not being interventionist enough, could any approach by the Court ever be truly satisfactory? And if not, perhaps it is worth considering whether the Court was right to intervene in the first place. Is it the judiciary’s place to adjudicate what are essentially political disagreements, especially in societies divided by frozen conflict?

A greater analysis of these questions, focusing on Cyprus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland and South Africa can be found in Nasia Hadjigeorgiou, Protecting Human Rights and Building Peace in Post-violence Societies: An Underexplored Relationship, to be published by Hart Publishing in January 2020. This monograph is part of the Human Rights Law in Perspective Series.


Nasia Hadjigeorgiou @NHadjigeorgiou

Nasia Hadjigeorgiou is an Assistant Professor of Transitional Justice and Human Rights at the University of Central Lancashire Cyprus. She does research on the protection of human rights and the building of peace in post-violence societies.


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