Interview by Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Christodoulides to the Eastern Mediterranean Affairs Magazine (EMA)*
[As published in Issue I, Dec. 2020]
It has become relatively obvious that Covid-19 has expedited the existing trend of multipolarity, and more specifically a growing great power competition. Do you accept this assessment?
The emergence of the novel coronavirus in late 2019 may be the most consequential event of the early 21st century, upending modern life, globalization, and relations between countries. It is indeed interesting to observe a trend of multipolarity, verifying a form of “anarchy” in international relations.
I do agree that the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the international system towards more realism and a more anarchic and multi-polar world. In this context, a pessimist might see anarchy in international relations as dangerous and potentially violent. An optimist, on the other hand, might think that while an anarchical world is an opportunity for some states, as a consortium of righteous and ethical powers, could use it to achieve common good, set a good example for others and address global and regional challenges.
Thus, I believe that global and regional stability is possible only through effective multilateral action. Amid these extraordinary times, it is dramatically proven, yet again, that our world is truly interconnected and interdepended. The pandemic has underscored the world’s vulnerability and fragilities, attesting that concerted efforts are humanity’s only hope and a destined necessity. As eloquently put by the UN Secretary General recently: “The pandemic drove home the essential interconnectedness of our human family. Preventing the further spread of COVID-19 is a shared responsibility for us all. We are in this together, no country can do it alone”.
This pandemic, as already proven, has affected and aggravated pre-existing inequalities, plunging those in the most perilous situations deeper into poverty, hunger and despair. A revitalized international partnership is required to support countries in need, which are now under immense strain.
Hence, the only way forward in order to maintain social justice and sustainable development is to collectively demonstrate solidarity in burden-sharing the above-mentioned negative effects, whilst sharing the vaccine for Covid-19 in an equitable and reciprocate manner, once it is developed.
Do you believe we are moving towards more regionalism and less globalism and perhaps even to new forms of spheres of influence (not necessarily in the Cold-War sense).
Indeed, I do share the opinion that we are moving towards more regionalism. This is mainly due to the need to deliver solutions on a local and regional level, while efforts to effectively address common challenges on a global level constantly fail.
During the past decades and up until today, the topics of the global agenda were:
(1) Global and trans-national, that no country can deal with on its own (such as climate change, terrorism, war, poverty),
(2). Too complex and complicated to address as a whole, and are required to be dismantled and taken apart into smaller sub-topics that can be addressed and treated in a practical manner, and
(3). There are several difficulties in promoting issues in fora with large numbers of member states, representing different interests, different administration methods and diverse economic capabilities.
This is why, during the past few years, the approach of an advanced regional cooperation has emerged as a top priority of the Cypriot foreign policy. We strongly believe that the practical application of “Effective Minilateralism”, as a combination of the notions of Multilateralism and Regionalism, could eventually contribute to conditions of stability and peace and that is what we have successfully attempt to establish through the formation of a web of trilateral partnerships of countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is exactly how we believe we can eliminate zero-sum game approaches and generate more win-win situations for the benefit of regional stability and peace.
There seems to be a turn towards governments (national entrenchment in a sense) and a turn away from international organizations (IOs), including the EU. The EU is now trying to catch up with the slow reactions. Do you believe that the role and influence of international institutions is at risk?
Certainly, it is obvious that the influence and the viability of international institutions is at risk. The respect to a rule-based system of International Law has never been so vital and imperative ever before. At a time when traditional multilateralism is under attack, regional initiatives that promote the honest political dialogue and cross-cultural understanding have added value.
The answer hides once again in a more long-term look at history, and more specifically European history. In the 20th century the European continent emerged from two World Wars. The European Union, emerged – literally and figuratively – from the ashes of World War II. It was coming together to address common problems through cooperation and synergies. And what started as an economic Union, has become the most successful political project of the 20th century. An economic, political, social Union, a Union of values that has achieved so much that we as Europeans must be proud of.
The EU is a cooperative and multilateral power by definition and we owe to recognise that during the last 20 years the EU has come a long way in enhancing its capabilities and its effectiveness. In years when multilateralism and the UN system have come under increasing pressure, the EU has the obligation to invest in effective multilateralism like never before. Having said that, there is no doubt that the rapidly evolving international security mosaic requires firm decisions, concrete actions and not just declaratory statements.
One of the greatest lessons modern European history has taught us, is that Europe has a unique ability to reinvent itself. In the face of the unprecedented geopolitical unpredictability, Europe must enhance its role as a vehicle of effective multilateralism and as a global player. In order to achieve this goal, it is vital that it pushes forward the goal of a more united, federal Europe, one that promotes peace, stability, prosperity and rule based international order, with an effective toolbox of regional policies at its disposal.
Following the question above, in regards to the RoC security concerns, to what extend are you concerned that the inward looking trend of states, coupled with the loss of IO influence, will act as an enabling factor for Turkey to act more aggressively and as a deterring factor for supporting states to come to our aid? In other words, do you believe that the RoC security status will suffer due to the new circumstances?
It is true that the pandemic has stirred a trend towards insularism in international relations, countries looking inwards for solutions. Cyprus, together with a number of countries in the region have taken a different approach. Beyond coming together to address the pandemic, and doing so in very tangible ways, Cyprus together with Greece, and countries of the region such as Egypt, Israel, Jordan, are moving forward in enhancing and expanding their cooperation mechanisms.
What continue to be worrisome are the unilateral aggressive actions on behalf of Turkey against several countries of the Eastern Mediterranean and the wider region, which cannot bring positive change or any kind of benefits for the region itself.
As a reaction to the above attitude, developments in the region over the last years are solid proof that states are following the path of cooperation and synergies, creating a common shield of cooperation based in international legality and norms. Let us look at a few examples of cooperation that we have witnessed in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2020. On 22 September of this year, the Statute of the Energy Forum established in Cairo with the participation of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Italy was signed. The interstate agreement on the East Med Pipeline was signed in Athens between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The flourishing of the trilateral mechanisms has led to a decision to establish a Permanent Secretariat in Nicosia, which is expected to start operating on 1 January 2021. More recently, the Governments of the Republic of Cyprus and the United States signed an agreement for the establishment in Cyprus of a Regional Training Centre (named “CYCLOPS”) for security on land, open seas and ports. And let us not forget that we have had the agreements for normalization of relations between Israel, UAE and Bahrain.
It is our conviction that the cooperation developed in the region, which is based on a strictly positive agenda, has created a dynamic that could lead to the creation of a regional Organisation for Security and Cooperation when the political conditions permit. In fact, the East Med is one of the few regions where such an organization does not exist. An East Med Organisation for Security and Cooperation will be inclusive, based on a positive agenda, and with the only pre-requisites being respect for international law, commitment to good neighborly relations, and respect to the sovereignty, sovereign rights and territorial integrity of every country.
I am particularly interested in one specific tool namely cultural diplomacy. Do you believe the MFA is utilizing sufficiently cultural diplomacy tools to achieve its goals?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular, fully cognizant of the importance cultural diplomacy can play for Cyprus – a country which despite its size has a strong imprint in world culture, history and civilization – has always placed great importance on this soft power tool, and increasingly more so in recent years when we have tried to be more active and achieve tangible results.
At the heart of our actions in this area is the theme of the protection of cultural heritage, a priority in our foreign policy. This is hardly surprising if one considers that Cyprus has experienced, and continues to experience, the consequences of the destruction of its cultural heritage, as a tool of war.
A recent example of how we have used cultural diplomacy in this direction is the important initiative the Ministry of Foreign Affairs undertook in the field of protection of cultural heritage, which led to the adoption of the Council of Europe Convention on Offences Relating to Cultural Property, also known as the ‘Nicosia Convention’ in 2017. The initiative was part of the Cyprus Presidency of the Ministerial Committee of the Council of Europe.
Nicosia worked hard, reaching out to other states, to promote a unique legal tool for combatting the destruction of illegal trafficking of cultural heritage. The Convention is in fact the first international legal text which incorporates a criminal code for perpetrators who destroy, steal or trade cultural heritage treasures. Key characteristics of the Convention include the fact that the burden of proof lies with the buyer and/or possessor of the artefact, as well as the fact that it provides for the harmonization of national legislation in order to promote and facilitate inter-state cooperation in combatting illegal trafficking of cultural heritage.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at a bilateral level but also working closely with the Secretariat of the Council of Europe, continues to work intensively in promoting the universality of the Nicosia Convention.
At the same time, we are working on extending our actions in the field of protection of cultural diplomacy. In the framework of an action plan developed by our Permanent Representation in Geneva, in March 2018 the Resolution of the Council of Human Rights of the United Nations on cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage was adopted unanimously. This was a Resolution that gathered the support of 74 member states of the Organisation who co-sponsored it. In terms of substance, the UN Council of Human Rights Resolution condemns unequivocally any action of destruction of cultural heritage, whether in the context of an armed conflict or not, and calls for the enhancement of international cooperation with the aim of more effective prevention and combatting the destruction of cultural heritage. It also underlines the need to return stolen cultural property to the country of origin, and stresses the need for the full restoration of cultural rights, especially for displaced persons.
Within the framework of the 37th Summit of the Council of Human Rights of the United Nations earlier this year, the Permanent Representation of Cyprus to Geneva, together with the Permanent Representations of Iraq, Ireland, and UNESCO Geneva Office also co-organised a series of seminars and events on the responsibility to protect cultural heritage.
I would also like to refer to the praiseworthy work of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in the protection and preservation of cultural heritage on the island, sending a strong message of what can be achieved by working together for a common cause. The Government has tangibly supported the Committee, and it will continue to do so.
At a bilateral level, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works closely with the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the Antiquities Department to promote the signing of bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding in the field of cultural cooperation, and is involved in their follow up and implementation. These agreements constitute an important element in deepening our bonds with other countries, well beyond, but complementary to the political and economic fields. It adds a dimension that in fact enhances our efforts for closer political and economic ties.
At the same time, our diplomatic missions abroad, working closely with Cypriot diaspora, and diaspora organisations, organize cultural events, with the aim of presenting and promoting Cyprus’s rich cultural history and heritage. These events include art exhibitions, concerns, folklore dancing, presentation of books and films by Cypriots creators, promoting Cypriot cuisine. These aim to familiarize audiences in other countries with Cyprus: with its history, its people, its cuisine, with all the pieces that make up the puzzle of the immensely rich cultural heritage of Cyprus. Because once you create this understanding, this familiarity through soft tools, you create a fertile ground for understanding in other areas which would otherwise be more difficult to convey.
We are gradually working in incorporating cultural diplomacy across the board in our foreign policy initiatives. For example in the context of the trilateral cooperation mechanisms with neighbouring countries – Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon – we have included purposefully in our action plans activities in the area of protection of archeological artifacts, combatting art trafficking, as well as joint cultural initiatives that bring these trilateral mechanisms and their message closer to the citizens of our countries. This creates a bottom-up approach that is necessary for the development of the trilateral mechanisms.
In which ways the Foreign Ministry played a role in the management of the pandemic? How would you evaluate your Ministry’s response?
Since day one, the Ministry’s central focus has been the support of Cypriots in need, while being overseas. One of our main tasks was to assist and coordinate the repatriation of Cypriots abroad – people who were travelling during the so-called “first wave” of the pandemic (March - May) or university students who wished to return back home since their Universities’ activities were paused due to the pandemic. Our Crisis Management Centre, in close cooperation with the Ministry of Transport and other governmental agencies, managed to bring more than 11 thousands Cypriot citizens back home by organising and executing a large-scale repatriation scheme.
Namely, we set up right away a specialised website titled “Connect2CY” where citizens who wished their repatriation had to inform us and provide specific information about their own case of repatriation. All lists of passengers were sent to the Ministry of Transport to negotiate with airliners and agree to send chartered flights for our plan to go into the implementation phase.
Moreover, we were able to offer financial support, through our Embassies, to Cypriot citizens who might have travelled professionally and who had to extent their stay abroad due to the worldwide travelling restrictions. Due to the same reasons, we provided, again via our Embassies, medicines to Cypriots who were not able to have full or rapid access to the health systems of their countries of residence, while we managed to set a support system of local doctors in third countries, for Cypriots who urgently needed medical examination and treatment.
Further to the above, the Ministry set up a network of distribution of food to Cypriot students, during the period of quarantine in several countries (including the UK, where there is a high number of Cypriot University students), with the active support of our Embassies and the local diaspora organisations. Another action of support on behalf of the Ministry was to work with Universities abroad to set up a psychological support network of health professionals to provide relieve to stranded Cypriot students, during the difficult days of the March – May quarantine.
Another mission which the Ministry had to undertake was the facilitation and coordination of discussions, when needed, with foreign countries that could support the Republic of Cyprus with the much needed medical supplies, such as face masks etc, back in the early days of the pandemic.
Our people working at the Crisis Management Centre were overwhelmed with the exhausting working conditions, however they have managed to succeed in their mission – thus we all remain grateful for their service. The call centre established under the Crisis Management Centre received more than 52.000 calls within the period of March – May 2020. I must say - we are greatly satisfied with how things evolved and for the tremendous exhibition of appreciation and gratefulness from people who received timely special treatment and got back home, as wished. God forbid - we are ready to do it again, if needed during this ongoing “second wave” of the pandemic.
Lastly, a question on the ongoing developments. You frequently mention that the RoC does not operate with a zero-sum mentality; on the contrary it is open for collaboration with all neighbours. That said, Turkey does not seem to share this view and its behaviour makes it particularly difficult to formulate regional collaborations, even for potentially transnational threats such as the Covid-19 pandemic. With Covid-19 still in the spotlight and many states looking more ‘inwards’ trying to deal with the problems the pandemic created, do you think it is possible for the RoC, the EU or other actors to convince Turkey to change its behaviour vis-à-vis Cyprus and the region?
Cyprus, together with other like-minded countries of the region, is putting forward a different narrative for the region, one of countries coming together with a positive agenda, in full respect of international law and good neighbourly relations, to promote a vision of peace, stability and prosperity for the Eastern Mediterranean. The trilateral cooperation mechanisms Cyprus and Greece have established in recent years with countries of the region, such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine are based on a positive, inclusive agenda, and are yielding tangible results. These include the East Med Pipeline, the establishment of the EMGF, and others, bringing together countries of the region with a mutually beneficial agenda. They send the message precisely that zero-sum games do not work, that it is only through cooperation and synergies that progress can be achieved and challenges addressed. At a moment when the pandemic is pushing many countries to insularism, countries of the region are coming together, including through the mini-multilateral fora, to send a different message. Indeed, other like-minded countries have acknowledged the added value of these mechanisms and have joined for specific issues: France has participated the trilateral with Egypt on security issues, United States has participated in the trilateral with Israel on security issues, Italy has going Cyprus, Greece and Israel on energy projects, and most recently the UAE has participated in a trilateral meeting with Egypt.
As witnessed during the most recent escalation of tensions, Turkey’s destabilising behaviour makes it particularly difficult, even for its own benefit, to formulate bilateral or regional collaborations, thus becoming more and more self-isolated. However, no country can walk alone – we live in an increasingly interconnected World where dialogue and common understanding are much needed, now more than ever.
I have to underline a core aspect of these cooperation mechanisms that was stated since their inception: Indeed, they have a positive agenda and are inclusive, no one in excluded. To the contrary – they are open to all countries in the region with the minimum pre-requisites being the respect to international law, good neighbourly relations, and respect to sovereignty and territorial integrity. We sincerely hope that Turkey will choose to cease employing gunboat diplomacy and provocative illegal actions, as demonstrated during the past few months, not only in the maritime zones of Cyprus and Greece, but also in other countries of the region. Turkey should abandon its destabilizing role in the region and should opt to be part of the web of cooperation that has been built in the region, for the benefit of its own people as well.
* Eastern Mediterranean Affairs (EMA) is a multidisciplinary magazine of regional focus and an integral part of the Eastern Mediterranean Studies Initiative (EMSI) forum of the University of Nicosia