A European court ordered Turkey to pay $124 million over 1974 Cyprus invasion. How does this matter?

A girl leaves flowers at the grave of her relative Cypriot soldier killed in 1974 (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A girl leaves flowers at the grave of her relative, a Cypriot soldier killed in 1974. (Petros Karadjias/AP)

The European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to pay 90 million euros (about $124 million) in damages on Monday related to its 1974 invasion of Cyprus (full judgment here). The invasion led the northern part of Cyprus to declare independence, although this is recognized only by Turkey. About one-third of this amount is supposed to go to the relatives of those who went missing during the conflict, and the remainder is intended for Greek Cypriots living in an enclave in Northern Cyprus.

What are the implications of this? Let me back up first and provide some context. The European Court of Human Rights is in Strasbourg and allows the citizens of 47 European countries to file claims that their governments have violated rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. The court’s membership goes well beyond that of the 27 European Union states and includes Turkey and Russia. It is a very active court that has issued more than 30,000 judgments on the merits and that receives about 65,000 applications a year (many of these are dismissed on procedural grounds). This overview summarizes a lot of useful basic information and statistics.

This particular judgment is a bit unusual. It stems from an interstate application in which Cyprus directly challenged Turkey (as opposed to individual citizens demanding satisfaction, which has also occurred in the past). Inter-state applications often involve issues related to armed conflict, including pending cases filed by Georgia and Ukraine against Russia.

The application is based on an older judgment in which the court found that Turkey committed numerous human rights violations in the course of its military actions. For a variety of reasons, Cyprus had not asked for financial compensation (“just satisfaction” in European Court parlance) until recently. This covers some new legal ground for the court. Nevertheless, the court ruled with an overwhelming majority of 15 to 2 on the award (the Turkish judge was one of the dissenters). The judgment comes from the court’s Grand Chamber and cannot be appealed.

There are a host of interesting legal and political implications of this judgment. Let’s first tackle the prospect that Turkey will actually pay anything at all. Turkey has an international legal obligation to abide by the judgment. That does not mean that it will actually do so. In an article (ungated) that is forthcoming in the academic journal International Organization, Sharan Grewal and I find that there is enormous variation in the time it takes for countries to implement European Court of Human Rights judgments. Some judgments are implemented quickly but others remain pending a decade or more after the judgment was issued.

We also found that implementation is much slower when judgments concern politically sensitive issues. On the bright side, we found that immature democracies (like Turkey) are on average quicker to implement their judgments than established democracies. This may be because these countries are more sensitive to international demands for adherence with human rights norms. However, we also found that if a government has strong reasons not to implement a judgment, then these immature democracies may delay implementation indefinitely as there are no balancing domestic institutions that can force an unwilling government to comply. This may be the case here as Turkey has so far refused to implement the underlying 2001 judgment upon which the claim for compensation is based.

Other research provides more ground for optimism. Wade Jacoby and Darren Hawkins find that states often partially comply with European Court of Human Rights judgments. They are especially likely to pay the “just satisfaction” (financial damages) but not to implement legislative or other measures that structurally address the cause of the human rights violation. Russia is known for following this strategy. From this perspective, the fact that Turkey has not implemented the 2001 judgment is not surprising and may not tell us much about the likelihood that it will pay damages. Still, paying damages implies acknowledging wrong-doing, which may not be attractive for both domestic and international political reasons.

The broader question is how all of this may or may not affect the renewed negotiations between Turkey and Cyprus. These negotiations are partially driven by the recovery of natural gas reserves off the Cyprus coast that could be profitably transported to European customers through a pipeline that would run through Turkey. This gives both parties some incentives to change the status quo.

Let me present a positive scenario. The judgment stems from an old case and thus should not be seen as an attempt by Cyprus to derail the negotiations. It creates what political scientists call a “focal point” for addressing one of the sticky issues in the negotiations: that of compensation. There is now a EURO amount with legally binding force behind it. That may just help reduce the number of issues that have to be resolved at the bargaining table. Whether it will work out this way or whether the judgment will become fodder for politicians to stir up nationalism for domestic political gain remains to be seen.

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government.
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