Reunification of Cyprus

Delivered on the floor of the United States Senate.

Madam President, in the last few decades we have seen historic changes around the world--the end of apartheid in South Africa, the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a wave of democratization across Eastern Europe and Latin America. My mother's homeland, her land of birth, the country of Lithuania, was once occupied by Nazis and then the Soviets. Today, it is a free, prosperous, democratic nation. These have all been moments of hope and inspiration. Yet, sadly, despite so much progress, we continue to be challenged by a number of longstanding internal conflicts in different corners of the world. From Sudan, to Kashmir, to Sri Lanka, internal divisions in the historical grievances have led to divided people and unnecessary human suffering.

Recently, during the Presidents Day break 2 weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit one such impasse that today shows at least the promise for resolution--the island of Cyprus. U.N. peacekeepers first came to Cyprus in 1964 due to intercommunal fighting. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided into the government-controlled two-thirds of the island and the remaining one-third of the island which is administered by Turkish Cypriots. The Republic of Cyprus, which joined the European Union in 2004, continues to be the only internationally recognized government on the island.

Tragically, Cyprus has been divided now for more than 30 years, with the U.N. buffer zone separating the entire island, the so-called green line. Violence today is rare, thank goodness, but the long-term impacts of the separation are stark--displaced people, memories of family members killed in earlier violence, and lost property rights. Quite simply, a people who share a common island have been unnecessarily divided for far too long.

In recent years, a number of important steps have been taken to improve relations toward eventual reunification. Crossing points between the two sides have opened. Thousands of people pass peacefully between the two sides of the island without incident.

A Committee on Missing Persons comprised of scientists from both the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities has been established. Of all the things we visited during the course of the 48 hours, an intensive visitation on the island of Cyprus, it is a cruel irony that one of the most hopeful was this Committee on Missing Persons. This is what they do. They have identified some 2,000 missing people, in some 40 years or more, 1,500 on the Greek side, 500 on the Turkish side, and they are trying to find the remains of their loved ones who have been gone for so long. They take DNA samples from all members of the family, and then they wait for anonymous, confidential reports of grave sites. They send their archeologists out to excavate the grave sites, bring the skeletal remains into a laboratory, where scientists, both Turkish and Greek, try to reassemble skeletons and then take DNA samples and link them with families who reported missing persons. So far, over 130 of those missing persons have been identified. They have been brought back to their families. There has been a moment of closure and peace.

One would think, because these people disappeared in the most tumultuous and violent times, that, in fact, this would be another excuse, another opportunity for exploitation politically. But it doesn't happen. These families, after waiting for decades, have finally come to closure with the death of their loved one and really want to look forward. It is a very sober and dignified program and one that gives me some hope for this island, that people whose lives have been touched with violence can still find their way to peaceful resolution in their own minds when they finally are given the remains of someone they love. Thus far, no politician has taken advantage of these identifications to further more division or mistrust.

Most importantly, today there are two leaders who are extraordinary. Demetris Christofias is the President of the Republic of Cyprus. Mehmet Ali Talat leads the other side of the island on the Turkish side. They are engaged in serious negotiations to reunify the island. I had a chance to meet with both of them, speak to them at length. At great political risk, they are sitting down to try to work out their difficulties. They need help. They need the support of the Greek and Turkish Governments because although they may not have a direct presence--in the case of Turkey, their troops are there, and there is a direct presence--there is a community of interest between the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey and the Greek Cypriots and Greece. The support of those two nations can be very helpful in bringing the peaceful reunification of the island.

Christofias and Ali Talat are friends. They have made a peaceful and lasting agreement, or at least they have worked for one which unifies the island their top priority, and it should be one we encourage and support. Their efforts are brave and forward-thinking. They are to be commended for working to make history for the people of Cyprus.

While the negotiations are a Cypriot-led process, the United Nations has a representative and special adviser, Alexander Downer, whom I met with and who is trying to find ways to bring the two sides together. He is an important symbol of the world's interest in the effort to find lasting peace on the island. We need to support his work.

After visiting Cyprus, I had the opportunity to visit both Greece and Turkey, two key NATO allies and friends of the United States. I was heartened there by leaders in both countries expressing hope for the peaceful reunification of the island of Cyprus.

These are important and inspiring steps forward, but there is still a great deal to be done toward final agreement. Many issues still need to be negotiated, and there is room for more confidence-building measures such as the Committee on Missing Persons and the opening of more crossing points. I am also concerned that failure to reach some kind of agreement this year may result in missing one of the most hopeful, perhaps last great opportunities in recent times to reunify the island.

For more than a generation, the situation in Cyprus has left an island and a region divided. People have died. Families have been separated. There has been a great deal of pain inflicted on the people of this island.

Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey are all friends of the United States and important to the region. While this is a Cypriot-led process and negotiation, I wish to express my strong hope and support for the current negotiations to bring peaceful and enduring settlement to the island.

One of the last visits I made, as I left Turkey, was to stop in Istanbul and meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the leader of the Greek Orthodox church. The Patriarch represents a church that has been in Istanbul for 17 centuries. There are now about 5,000 Greek Orthodox left in Istanbul. It is a small and dwindling community. But Istanbul as a city has a great symbolic importance to the patriarch and his church. He told me one of his highest priorities was the closing of the Halki Seminary 38 years ago. I told him I would reach out to the Turkish side in the hopes that they would meet with the patriarch and reopen discussions about this issue. I recently spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about this as well. I know she is headed to the Middle East. I hope she will raise it.

This gentle man, the Ecumenical Patriarch, is asking for a chance for a seminary class so that his priests and bishops can be trained and prepared for the priesthood and for the hierarchy of his church. It is not an unreasonable request. I hope there is a way we can find within the constitution, within the laws, within the treaties involving Turkey to give them this opportunity. This gentle man, who prays for peace every day, should be rewarded with the reopening of his seminary. I hope the leaders of Turkey in Ankara, who were kind enough to meet with me, will find a way after decades to reopen these negotiations.

I yield the floor.