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European fine of Turkey over Cyprus unlikely to make much difference

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to impose a compensation fine of €90m on Turkey for its 1974 "invasion and occupation" of Cyprus is unprecedented. Experts believe that it could pave the way for similar punitive measures against Russia for its involvement in Crimea. That being so, there is an equally strong case against Israel for its invasion and military occupation of Arab lands in 1967.

There is, no doubt, a fundamental difference in the Palestinians' case that must be underlined. For them, compensation or damages is not their driving motive; it never was, and never will be. They simply want to be freed from Israel's military occupation. In fact, there has been from the very beginning a universal consensus on the illegality of the Israeli occupation. Its Palestinian victims who are now scattered across Europe must therefore test the Strasbourg court to see whether it is willing to apply the law in equal measure, without fear or favour.

Philippe Sands, an international law professor at University College London, said of the ECHR judgment: "It's a strong signal that the passage of time will not diminish the consequences or costs of illegal occupation… I would imagine it opens the door to claims arising from that kind of occupation. It signals that the court will not back off on issues like this over time."

The court's judgement stated: "After all, there is punishment for unjust war and its tragic consequences in Europe." Naturally, some may be tempted to argue that Israel is not part of Europe. That may be so in theory but the reality is much different. Javier Solana, the former EU foreign policy chief, explained during a visit to occupied Jerusalem in 2009: "There is no country outside the European continent that has this type of relationship that Israel has with the European Union. Israel, allow me to say, is a member of the European Union without being a member of the institution. It's a member of all the programmes, it participates in all the programmes."

One of the points raised in the judgement was that Turkey has refused to respond to repeated calls for the full implementation of previous judgments concerning its invasion of Northern Cyprus. Here, the same can be said about Israel's occupation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank and Jerusalem. Observers have stopped counting the number of resolutions passed by the UN condemning Israel's occupation as illegal and an affront to the norms of civilised conduct between peoples. All of these repeated calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Whether it relates to the issue of its occupation – the longest running in modern history – or its perpetration of war crimes against the Palestinian people, there is no shortage of excuses and reasons for exemptions in Europe. Take the case of Tzipi Livni, who ironically holds the post of Minister of Justice in Israel. She was, this week, granted special diplomatic immunity by the British government in order to avoid arrest for suspected war crimes. Like the Greek Cypriot families who sought justice at the ECHR, Palestinian families similarly have filed cases in London against the Israeli official for her role in her country's bombardment of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. The usual reason given for this special exemption is that legal proceedings will jeopardise "peace talks" with the Palestinians. For whatever reasons, the Strasbourg court made no such linkage in its ruling against Turkey. Sinan Ulgen, the director of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul observed, "It's unfortunate that this decision has come to pass at the present time not only because there are negotiations on the island."

On a related level, the timing of the ECRH ruling seems all the more unfortunate given the fact that Ankara has adopted what it calls a "zero problems" policy with its neighbours and the world. To this end, it has sought to resolve its long-standing problems not only with the Cypriots but also with the Kurdish and Armenian people. Having cut inflation by 55 per cent since coming to power in 2002, the last thing the ruling Justice and Development Party wants is an international dispute that would undermine its economic success. The country has an economy that is growing faster than China and attracts a significant amount of international business interest.

The fact that Turkey has already announced that it will not pay the fine is unlikely to result in a major diplomatic row with the Council of Europe, a 47-nation body that recognises the court's jurisdiction. That is the current situation, at least for now. European economies are already threatened with destabilisation because of events in Ukraine. They can ill-afford, therefore, to ostracise Turkey, which is not only a major economic partner but a key member of NATO.

Just as it has bent over backwards, time and again, to accommodate Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land, Europe may well consider doing the same for Turkey, if only to secure the EU's own interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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