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Cyprus: Do “Old” Peacekeeping Missions Need to Break the Status Quo?

This past July, the United Nations Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) with Resolution 2587. The Security Council has had Cyprus’ frozen conflict—often referred to by researchers and scholars as the “Cyprus problem”—on its agenda for 57 years, following the creation of UNFICYP through Resolution 186 and a subsequent mediation role for the secretary-general. Cyprus has a complex history, beginning with the inter-ethnic events of 1963-1964 for the Turkish Cypriots, who cannot forget the violence and humiliation they suffered at the time. For the Greek Cypriots, it begins in July 1974, with the trauma of the Turkish intervention and the flight which followed.

UNFICYP has been understudied by the peacekeeping research community, which has been more focused on multidimensional missions. Cyprus itself is a unique case in international relations and peace operations, being the only country to have “Guarantors” (the former colonial power, the United Kingdom, and neighboring states, Greece and Turkey) with a right to intervene and station troops on a permanent basis.  In the current context of a paralyzed Security Council, lessons from missions created during the Cold War are increasingly important, as is the study of interposition forces as a potential conflict prevention mechanism. A new EPON report on the UN presence in Cyprus tries to fill that gap, while also looking at the interaction between peacekeeping and peacemaking in the country.

UNFICYP deployment in 1964 is credited with preventing a civil war, and has stabilized the security situation since 1974. At very low cost, and on a daily basis, it has managed low-level disputes from spiraling out of control and being used to add additional stress on the peacemaking process. In essence, its success has been quiet conflict prevention.

Despite this, neither UNFICYP nor the Mission of Good Offices are very well known among Cypriots; those that do know it have a fairly global and positive view of its actions. Nevertheless, the EPON report found Cypriots lack confidence in the effectiveness of the UN, as they connect the work of the peacekeepers to the state of the negotiations. It can be a quick assumption to paint a peacekeeping mission that stays for decades as ineffective; however, the link between the length of deployment and its efficiency is an open question. An efficient peacekeeping tool can co-exist with an unsuccessful peacemaking one, despite constant and tireless attempts to find “a peaceful solution and an agreed settlement of the problem confronting Cyprus” (Resolution 186, 4 March 1964).

In fact, one could argue that this success on the peacekeeping side has become part of the problem in peacemaking by creating a comfortable state of affairs that is not conducive to conflict resolution. This status quo has become normalized, “an imperfect reality” in which the parties refrain from seeking change, as it means risk and uncertainty. In the long run, this situation likely has become a trap for the Cypriots and the UN—a stalemate that complicates the work of the peacekeepers, as they are more often the targets of the anger generated by this protracted situation.

The perceived success of the status quo also keeps it from getting needed attention, as is typical of old missions located in hot spots, where the assumption is that moving an inch away from the status quo could reignite the conflict. In the case of Cyprus, the intense strategic attention internationally geared towards this Eastern Mediterranean island has led the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) to avoid bold initiatives in the dossier that would change things, making it very difficult for the rest of the UN to operate in the area. Overall, the Security Council has spent little time on Cyprus with, on average, two resolutions per year, mainly to renew UNFICYP’s six-month mandate, support ongoing negotiations, or reiterate the lack of meaningful progress on the political front. Cyprus is considered a low-intensity issue on the Council’s agenda, reflecting the lack of urgency on the part of the international community towards a conflict that has no victims. And in this context, an effective solution to the problem has been a distant secondary concern for the key international actors.

Like multidimensional missions, old missions need the consent of the parties to the conflict to move forward. Even if the lack of consent can somehow be navigated in peacekeeping, navigating it in peacemaking can be much more difficult, especially when the UN is merely a facilitator and the parties view compromise with great reluctance. This has led the UN in Cyprus to accept features in the latest negotiating processes contrary to what the UN would encourage in any other conflict setting, i.e., a top-down leadership process that has excluded grassroots movements; open-ended negotiations that have arguably prolonged the status quo; and information not being sufficiently shared with the public. Instead of building up, the negotiations have increased divisions, as nothing has fundamentally changed—they still lack inclusivity and fail to create common ground. Nicosia is arguably the only remaining divided capital in Europe, and in the world. And the inconclusiveness of peacemaking has contributed to the ineffectiveness of peacekeeping efforts. The lack of will from the parties to engage in a meaningful political process has limited the UN’s effectiveness. The UN presence has kept the idea of reunification alive, even if facts on the ground have moved the island towards division.

The EPON report on Cyprus makes a few recommendations to move away from a negative status quo, a negative peace, and the absence of negotiations. These are recommendations directed at the UN, but also at the parties so that the former can help the latter not only keep the peace, but build it.

  1. The need to devise an “healthier negotiating process,” with an incremental approach, a Track II element attached to it, focusing more on the conditions for the talks rather than the end state in the form of a comprehensive solution, and with the introduction of deadlines and benchmarks that would eventually bring an end to the process.
  2. Merge the Good Offices mission into UNFICYP to strengthen elements that are viewed as important by interlocutors within and outside the current missions: monitoring and political analysis. Change the name of UNFICYP to better reflect its monitoring or observation role.
  3. The Security Council should put more pressure on the Greek Cypriot side, in particular, to establish a military commission around the UNFICYP Force Commander representative of all parties, including the Guarantors, as it has called for in past resolutions—a commission that would help defuse daily tensions and build a military-to-military relationship between stakeholders that do not currently know one another.
  4. A review by the secretary-general (with the Security Council and the Peacebuilding Commission) of the peacebuilding pillar of the UN presence in Cyprus to help the Cypriots build a culture of peace and work towards reconciliation.
  5. A new discussion initiated by the Security Council and secretary-general on the UNFICYP budget to align it with other peace operations, i.e., to be financed by the peacekeeping budget, which would help counter any accusation of partiality increasingly directed at the UN Mission.
  6. The need for the authorities of the Republic of Cyprus to break the vicious circle of mistrust and engage on an “engagement without recognition” approach when interacting with their Turkish Cypriots neighbors.

The UN has been a stabilizing element in a divided, militarized, and polarized island. Stability has been the main achievement of the UN presence acknowledged by the majority of EPON’s interlocutors. However, in order not to waste those gains and avoid a comfortable status quo slowly transforming into an unstable regional dispute, as well as having a UN mission operating a line of effective permanent partition, the various stakeholders of the “Cyprus problem” should now look at it more seriously than it has been over the past few decades.

Cypriots on both sides are still hopeful: 85.5 percent of Greek Cypriots and 67 percent of Turkish Cypriots wish to end the Cyprus problem in a way that assures political equality for Turkish Cypriots and security for Greek Cypriots from Turkish influence. In order to meet these hopes, the UN has to move towards a more structural approach to (re)solving the conflict through peacebuilding and sustaining peace, where past disputes can be settled and the relationship and ties between the two communities can finally improve.

Alexandra Novosseloff is a non-resident senior fellow at the International Peace Institute and a research associate at the Centre Thucydide of the University of Paris-Panthéon-Assas. She tweets @DeSachenka.

This article was first published in The Global Observatory on 18 October 2021 and republished here with permission.

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Alexandra Novosseloff

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