Cyprus may be more famous as a holiday destination than as a conflict zone, but it is home to one of the longest and most enduring UN peacekeeping missions.
For 50 years, the UN has been tasked with managing the conflict between the Republic of Cyprus, internationally recognized and a member of the European Union, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an internationally-isolated country only recognized by Turkey. Unfortunately, time has not solved Cyprus’s long running animosity, and today the UN’s ‘blue helmets’ continue to play a critical and unique role on the island.
Nicosia is, in fact, the world’s last divided capital. The Ledra Street border point is the main foot crossing in the center of the old city. It is an unthreatening gateway used by most tourists heading to the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. The smart shops lining the Greek side’s cosmopolitan boulevard flow towards the checkpoint that swiftly deposits you in the heart of a Turkish Bazaar. As you pass, it feels more like the entrance to a tourist attraction than a fault line. However, less than a mile west, things couldn’t be more different. At the Ledra Palace Hotel crossing, the real, unpolished face of the Cyprus can be seen. Lines of barbed wire and tall watchtowers surround a memorial commemorating the death of Tasos Isaak, killed at the crossing during protests in the 1990s. In the middle of the crossing is the UN headquarters in the large, decaying, and grand ex-hotel, Ledra Palace.
The UN mission was established after the outbreak of inter-communal violence a few years after Cyprus’s independence from the UK in 1960. Fourteen years later, in response to a coup by the Greek supported Cypriot National Guard, Turkish forces landed on the north coast and, in a matter of months, took control of around 40% of the island. Although the two sides never officially negotiated a cessation of hostilities, the Turkish forces declared a unilateral ceasefire and the battle lines were stopped. A UN Buffer Zone was set up between the armies, who are still in exactly the same positions today as they were 40 years ago.
Inside the 180km Buffer Zone, time has stopped. The zone’s near 10,000 residents walked out on farms, factories and lives. In villages cups were left on tables, furniture in houses and cars in their showrooms. This gives the dispute something of a vintage air about it. From the fading 1970s décor of the Ledra Palace Hotel, to the rusting Cypriot Airlines plane on the tarmac of the old Nicosia Airport in the heart of the Buffer Zone, the dispute has become frozen.
The UN continues to monitor every minute aspect of civilian and military activities in the Buffer Zone to ensure a set of agreed rules and norms – both trivial and serious – are not violated. They set the locations and types of guard posts through to the number and placing of sandbags around each position. “On a daily basis there are violations; over-manning is most common but also allegations of insults and what we call ‘INFO-OPS’,” says UN Spokesperson Michel Bonnardeaux. ‘INFO-OPS’ is the official term for things like swearing and flashing. The problem is that such everyday things escalate to a formal complaint to the UN. In situations like this, Bonnardeaux says, very little can officially be done but the UN has to handle everything equally.
The UN also maintains the stalemate by force: when the Turkish forces moved the separating fence forward last year, the UN turned out in numbers to prevent further encroachment. “Both sides have their own understanding of what is meant to be in place and there are lots of contested areas. This is largely due to the maps at the time and when you apply it to today’s GPS there can be issues,” says Bonnardeaux. “A few meters can be significant, so mapping is a lot of what the UN does today.”
The UN’s police force also oversea the civilian use of the Buffer Zone with a permit system. Those owning farms have started entering more regularly to tend crops in the zone as Cyprus’s accession to the EU made farmland more valuable.
But the UN’s overall mission is to work towards reunification. They do this by organizing multi-level political and technical discussions on everything from constitutional changes to telecoms unification. “The opening of crossings [after 2003] was the last significant move – some will argue that that was the solution of the issue – but both sides will talk about ‘creeping recognition’, they fear it. Neither side recognizes the constitutional legitimacy of the other. So even when they meet they don’t call each other ‘president’, they’re called ‘community leaders’,” said Bonnardeaux.
The long history of the UN mission has shaped to its unique role. It’s the only mission set up under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, which covers observation and mediation, rather than Chapter 7, which is normally invoked today for intervention to prevent a breach of international peace. This has led to some quirks, says Bonnardeaux. “The mission predates the expansion of peacekeeping after fall of the Berlin Wall, so there was a different approach. Pre-Berlin Wall missions were headed by a military, not civilian, leader, which makes Cyprus different,” he continued.
Compared to UN mandates in other areas, like the Congo, Cyprus’s UN mandate is short, loosely-worded, and leaves a lot for individual interpretation. In just three lines, Security Council Resolution 186 (1964) simply states that the force should seek to preserve peace, prevent a resurgence of fighting and, most importantly, “should contribute to a return of normal conditions.” But, it’s hard to see what ‘normal conditions’ could look like today as both sides are so entrenched that one UN employee went as far as suggesting that the current situation has become ‘normal’. Put simply, the stability of the conflict doesn’t force the issue of finding a solution. This doesn’t seem to concern the UN Security Council who haven’t altered the mandate since 1974 despite regular six-month reviews.
Like its stable past, it seems that the future of the UN mission in Cyprus is set despite its reduced contingent. Although Ban-Ki Moon has questioned the continued role of the UN on the island, Republic of Cyprus took the unprecedented step of volunteering to fund one-third of the $50 million a year needed to maintain it – making it the only UN mission funded by one of the disputing sides. Greece also pledged a further $6.5m a year guaranteeing roughly 50% of the budget. The motive for such support seems to be keeping the issue on the international stage and maintaining pressure on the Turkish Republic to keep attending talks.
Many Cypriots of both sides will admit that they see reunification of the island a remote possibility. Raif Raif, a Turkish Cypriot, said that if coexistence in 1960s led to conflict, the last 40 years of being cut off from each other would make a settlement too difficult. Greek Cypriot Nicos Theodosiou admitted that, “People have lost faith in anything happening but at the same time we know that something must happen.” That said, Bonnardeaux is hopeful; he highlighted the regular talks between leaders and the changing economic reality on the ground. The discovery of oil and gas has sparked debate on how to share proceeds with all Cypriots, meanwhile the North needs to attract investment and tourism which is a challenge given the international embargo against them. Today, everyone has a vested interested in some sort of solution, however no one is expecting a sudden resolution to this 50 year old conflict. The UN, meanwhile, seem settled in for the long haul and in the Buffer Zone the dust will continue to gather around the abandoned cups while whole towns just slide into history.