This is one of a series of articles from our new feature ‘Background briefing: The Divided Island‘. It is a comprehensive interactive information guide on the Cyprus problem which we are publishing at this critical moment in the settlement negotiations. There is a menu bar to the full package to the right of this article. Just click on any of the items.
The UN’s peacekeeping force in Cyprus, Unficyp, was formally established in March 1964 for a period of three months. This “temporary” force, as it was originally described, has now been on the island for so long that fathers and sons have served in it.
In the event of the island’s reunification, Unficyp could remain for an agreed period to oversee the implementation of a settlement if its assistance is requested by the two communities. If so, it would likely operate under a new mandate and a new name. To oversee territorial adjustments and the withdrawal of 35,000 Turkish troops, it would need to be a re-vamped, more mobile and pro-active force with a beefed-up police component.
There were several thousand troops in Unficyp in 1964 but just 2,340 at the time of the Turkish invasion in 1974 when the UN had to rush in reinforcements. Relative calm after the island’s de facto division meant the UN was able gradually to reduce Unficyp’s strength, which currently manages with fewer than 1,000 peacekeepers.
It costs around $54m a year to maintain. The Republic of Cyprus foots around $18m of this bill and Greece contributes $6.5m.
Unficyp was hurriedly formed when a breakdown of the constitutional order in Cyprus was followed by intense inter-communal fighting days before Christmas in 1963 which the West feared could lead to conflict between Nato members Greece and Turkey. With the agreement of both countries, troops from British bases on Cyprus were rushed to Nicosia to restore peace and security in the city.
The commander of British forces in Cyprus, Major General Peter Young, delineated a ceasefire line in Nicosia on December 30 1963 using a green pencil on a map. British troops held this ‘Green Line’ alone until Unficyp’s establishment and, to Britain’s relief, they were joined by troops from Canada, Sweden, Ireland and Finland.
A Danish contingent and an Austrian field hospital arrived in May 1964, and by the following month Unficyp reached a strength of 6,411. It included civilian police units from Australia and New Zealand, among other countries, making the force a truly international one.
Britain alone has stayed the course since 1964 and its contingent of troops, known as Britcon, has consistently been Unficyp’s largest. This commitment underlines Britain’s historical obligation as the former colonial power and its role as one of Cyprus’ three guarantors. Britain’s 275 blue berets in Cyprus comprise about 85 per cent of all British troops on UN duty worldwide.
Under the UN Security Council’s resolution 186 of 1964, Unficyp’s mandate is, “in the interest of preserving international peace and security, to use its best efforts to prevent a recurrence of fighting and, as necessary, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and a return to normal conditions”.
Unficyp troops can use arms only in self-defence and then only minimum force can be used once all peaceful means of persuasion have failed. Unficyp must show complete impartiality towards members of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
After heavy outbreaks of inter-communal fighting in 1964 and 1967, Cyprus and Unficyp enjoyed a period of relative calm until the Turkey invaded on July 20 1974, presenting the force with its greatest challenge.
Large-scale hostilities by the armed forces of one of the island’s guarantor powers was not envisaged in the force’s mandate. At the UN secretary-general’s request, contributing countries rushed more troops to the island to don blue berets, increasing Unficyp’s strength by 2,078 to 4,444 between July 24 and August 14, 1974.
Ceasefire lines established at 18.00 on August 16, 1974 meant that the ‘green line’ had now become a 180 km-long frontier slicing across the entire width of Cyprus. They have not changed since and mark the edges of the UN-controlled buffer zone.
Some 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled or were expelled from the north, and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots eventually moved in the opposite direction. The Turkish Cypriots, around one in five of the island’s population, were left holding 36.2 per cent of the territory, while 35,000 Turkish troops remain in northern Cyprus, enforcing the de facto division.
The UN-controlled buffer zone stretches from Kato Pyrgos on Cyprus’ northwest coast to Dherynia on the island’s northeast shores. It varies greatly in width from a few metres in central Nicosia to seven kilometres near Athienou, and takes up about three per cent of the island’s territory.
In May 1989, Unficyp persuaded the two sides to unman positions in the narrowest and therefore most sensitive parts of the buffer one in Nicosia, without changing the ceasefire lines. This helped to significantly reduce tensions.
There have been no conflict-related deaths in the buffer zone since August 1996 when two Greek Cypriot civilians were killed in separate anti-occupation demonstrations. Two British blue berets from 39 Regiment Royal Artillery were wounded by Turkish gunire during the second of those incidents. No Unficyp soldier has since been harmed in similar circumstances, although 186 UN blue berets have died on duty since 1964. Most of those deaths since 1974 have been in accidents while patrolling in vehicles.
Unficyp uses observation posts dotted along the buffer zone to keep it under surveillance, along with patrols on land and by helicopter. The force is mandated to promote civilian use of the buffer zone where possible and four villages are designated to such use and farming is the main activity.
In April 2003, the former Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, unexpectedly allowed a partial lifting of the restrictions on freedom of movement across the divide for the first time in 29 years. People from the two communities, many bearing flowers, poured across two checkpoints in Nicosia to see their lost homes and meet old friends amid tumultuous scenes of high emotion and goodwill. The buffer zone has since become more porous: there are now seven crossing points dotted along its length.
In 1993, Argentine blue berets joined the force and get on well with British UN troops – even though their two countries went to war over the Falklands Islands in 1982. UN officials privately expressed the hope that this example of reconciliation would be followed by the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
Unficyp plays a vital role in supporting peace negotiations and is mandated to ensure a stable environment conducive to UN-facilitated talks between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders aimed at re-uniting Cyprus. The force complements the work of the UN secretary-general’s special adviser to Cyprus and co-operates closely with his or her office but there is no overlap between the two missions.
Over the decades, however, UN officials began to wonder whether the reassuring presence of blue berets made the status quo sufficiently tolerable that both sides could hold back from making the painful concessions needed to re-unite Cyprus. In other words, had Unficyp become a victim of its own success?
In 2011, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, said that “Unficyp’s continued presence … could not be taken for granted”, echoing a similar warning 19 years earlier by one of his predecessors, Boutros Boutros Ghali.
Some troop contributing countries, such as Canada and Denmark, bailed out years ago, with new ones plugging the gaps.
However, few seriously believed the UN would withdraw its force in Cyprus while it was still needed. And, as a senior UN official remarked in 2014 on Unficyp’s 50th anniversary, “UN won’t withdraw it because that would be admitting failure after 50 years”.
Instead, the Unficyp was cut to the bone over the years. The last big reduction came in 2004 when its strength was cut from 1,230 to its current level of 861 military personnel and 68 police. While this might not seem many to cover 180 kms of buffer zone, senior officers say it is just about enough in the current operating conditions.
The latest phase of Cyprus settlement talks, which began in May 2015, has given the UN hope that an end for Unficyp might finally be in sight. In his most recent six-monthly report on the force to the UN Security Council on June 2016, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, praised President Nicos Anastasiades and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, for their “courage and perseverance”. They had made “genuine progress through their constant engagement”.
Ban also expressed his gratitude to “the 34 countries that have now contributed either military or police personnel or both to the mission since 1964”.
If there is a reunification deal, Unifcyp, in some form, will have to stay for a few years to oversee it. But men who served in the force decades ago and now have sons on the “green line” will know their grandsons are only ever likely to visit Cyprus in civvies – as holidaymakers.
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