Chair of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of Nicosia and has served as Ambassador of Cyprus in a number of capitals, and as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
There are many good reasons, as well as some bad ones, for diplomacy being generally conducted in secrecy. One of the founders of the academic study of the diplomatic method, Sir Harold Nicolson, argued not only in favour of secrecy in the conduct of diplomacy, but also of limitations on the degree to which diplomacy was conducted in the light of parliamentary procedures. A particularly sensitive area of diplomacy is the conduct of negotiations. One of the fundamental reasons for the need for confidentiality in negotiations is the requirement to maintain some degree of flexibility which is necessary to make an agreement possible. Publication may make positions more rigid. A second reason, which is connected to the first reason, is that when negotiations are conducted in public there is a tendency for participants in the negotiations to resort to what we today call populism. There are different kinds and definitions of populism, but one modern meaning is the tendency of some politicians to tell the public what the public wishes to hear in place of more objective versions of reality.
In the case of the Cyprus negotiations, there are additional reasons which advocate secrecy. One of them is that the negotiations are being conducted on the basis that “nothing is finally agreed until everything is agreed”. This means that even “convergences” in the negotiations may not be final, as they may be withdrawn by one or the other side, in the light of the end positions of the two sides. In practice, a compromise between the need for diplomatic secrecy and the democratic right to information has been found within the Greek Cypriot community, whereby political leaders have access to information through the National Council, and to reading secret documents without the possibility of copying them.
Where however does this leave the citizens? The role of the citizens is crucial, as in contrast to other kinds of negotiations, the Cyprus negotiations have a constituent element, and the final stage will be that citizens will be called to vote in a referendum for each community on the agreement reached in the negotiations. In order to do this responsibly they need, as is the case in all democratic processes, a framework of accepted information, as well as a framework for the referendum .
My impression is that the current process of democratic debate leaves the citizens in confusion, from which it may become increasingly difficult to emerge when the time comes to vote. During the Economist Conference in Nicosia, on 1 November, one of the political leaders accused President Anastasiades of a total black-out of information on the negotiations, even as far as the leaders of political parties who participate in the National Council are concerned, and implied that the reason for this black-out is that the results of the negotiations are catastrophic for the Greek Cypriots. It is true that a member of the audience asked him how he knew that the results were catastrophic if there was a total black-out. Another political leader basically said that he was in favour of hope and peace. A well informed and independent minded participant told me in a private conversation that even property which did not have a “current user” would not be returned to the original owner. It would be returned only to the extent of one third of his total property.
In other words, it is difficult for even knowledgeable and experienced citizens to inform themselves of the state of negotiations from the publicly available information and the debate on the issues. The danger is that minds will be made up on the basis of little information or even misinformation, and that these minds may not be changed later on, when the bulky results of the negotiations are made available to the public. We run the risk that we will once more be faced not by objective information and constructive debate, but by confusion, suspicion and unbridgeable division.
Is it perhaps time to assure that objective and agreed information is reaching the public and might the United Nations Mission have a role in this? This might also make it possible for academic and journalistic voices to bridge some of the wide chasms in views between political leaders. It is clear that for the good of the country a way must be found to stop the downward spiral of confusion, suspicion and division, while respecting both the diplomatic need for confidentiality where necessary, and also, the democratic need for objective information. We might ask for some technical assistance from the Republic of Ireland, where referenda are conducted with the assistance of a Referendum Commission which is responsible for assuring equal opportunity for the two sides to promote a referendum proposal and for objective information of the public on the issues involved.