The UN secretary-general has called for a six-month renewal of Unficyp’s mandate, highlighting that actions around the buffer zone have caused levels of tension not seen in years.
In his report on the UN peacekeeping force released on Thursday, he also stressed that the absence of a solution to the Cyprus problem “is increasingly unsustainable”.
Since talks collapsed in 2017, the absence of negotiations “does not mean that the situation on the island remains unchanged, either at the political level or in the buffer zone”, he said.
“I note with concern that, since the closure of the Conference on Cyprus in Crans-Montana, tensions on the island have progressively increased over time, including during the reporting period, in the capital, Nicosia.”
Positions have hardened on both sides of the divide and it has “heightened the risk of political escalation, even from seemingly benign day-to-day issues and challenges”.
“During the period, unilateral actions in sensitive areas near or in the buffer zone caused levels of political tension not seen in Cyprus in years.”
Unficyp observed several incidents of threatening behaviour and on March 9, it noted the the first physical act of aggression against Unficyp since 1996 during demonstrations over the closed checkpoints.
“Three Unficyp police officers suffered minor injuries as members of the Turkish Cypriot police and security personnel entered a disputed section of the buffer zone and proceeded to physically push United Nations police personnel deeper into the zone.”
The report also highlighted that both sides had dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic with urgency but “in separate, uncoordinated responses”.
“Faced with a situation that is unprecedented in recent history, I have repeatedly emphasised that solidarity is essential for societies to recover and that mutually beneficial cooperation is preferable to unilateral action.”
While both sides were commended for cooperating with Unficyp, “important opportunities for a more coordinated response were not seized”.
“In some instances, responses to the pandemic on the island became politicised, including an incident in the bicommunal village of Pyla, where a disagreement ensued over who should be testing individuals from the two communities.”
Nonetheless, the report highlighted there are still ample opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation across the divide as the secondary effects of the pandemic are only now beginning to be felt.
The report urged more systematic reliance on the bicommunal technical committees, with appropriate political and technical support from the sides, which “could enable the committees on economy, crisis management, health, humanitarian affairs and others to play a constructive role in these uncommon circumstances as the aftershock of Covid-19 on Cyprus calls for even greater practical cooperation than before.”
Both leaders have expressed their readiness in establishing an effective mechanism for direct military-level contacts, in a bid to alleviate tensions along the ceasefire lines and in the buffer zone, the report said.
“Based on that response, my Special Representative and her team continued to shuttle between the sides to reach a mutually agreeable modus operandi.”
Unficyp’s maintenance came with a $50.8 million budget for the period between July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020. This included the voluntary contribution of one third of the net cost of the mission, equivalent to $17.1 million, from the government of Cyprus and the voluntary contribution of $6.5 million from the government of Greece.
The secretary-general also described challenges to the status quo due to actions by Turkish forces on the northern ceasefire line as well as moves by military personnel in disputed sections of the buffer zone.
Increased military and police presence were noted along the southern ceasefire line, officially linked to irregular migration, the report noted.
In total, 152 status quo violations were recorded in the special status area of Strovilia, as well as hardening stance of the Turkish forces vis-à-vis Unficyp, over the checkpoint constructed by the Turkish Cypriot side in 2019 resulting “in the near permanent presence of an additional Turkish forces soldier in Strovilia, occupying a separate military position, which continued to be recorded as a violation.”
Mention was also made of the incident at the Spitfire Café in the buffer zone after Nicosia municipality crews were met with Turkish forces and in turn prompted the Cypriot National Guard’s presence “bringing the two opposing forces in proximity to one another in the buffer zone.”
Additionally, 389 military violations were recorded, a slight decrease compared to the previous reporting period which had amounted to 414 and 249 for the same period in 2019. The decrease was attributed to the winter weather as well as the pandemic and all the restrictions.
Tensions were also noted in Avlona, due to unauthorizsd farming activity in Avlona and Dhenia.
“Tensions were the most acute in Avlona, where unauthorised farming activity resulted in move forward violations by the Turkish forces and, at times serious, tensions between civilians.”
Such incidents were politicised by some media outlets and distorted facts, Guterres’ report said.
Though Unficyp’s efforts were complicated after checkpoints were closed, it supported or facilitated 182 intercommunal activities that brought together 3,859 participants from both sides.
It focused its intercommunal work in four key areas: peace education; the environment; youth and entrepreneurship; and gender equality and the participation of women.