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Our View: Unficyp’s days are surely numbered


Sixty years ago on Monday the UN Security Council hastily established Unficyp, for a period of three months, to deal with the inter-communal fighting that broke out just before Christmas 1963. Fears in the West that the fighting in Cyprus could lead to conflict between Nato members Greece and Turkey made the sending of a peacekeeping force to the island an imperative and by June 1964 there were some 6,500 Unficyp troops on the island.

The three-month mandate has now lasted 60 years and although Unficyp now has fewer than 1,000 soldiers, it is still the longest-serving peacekeeping mission in the world and costs $56m a year, with about 45 per cent of the budget covered by Cyprus and Greece. More than 150,000 men and women from some 43 countries have served under the UN flag in Cyprus where 187 peacekeepers have lost their lives.

For the 50 years since the Turkish invasion, Unficyp has been controlling the buffer zone that separates the two sides, maintaining the status quo and dealing with an array of disputes along the 180km ceasefire line. For the Greek Cypriots, Unficyp’s presence has provided a sense of security as it serves as a barrier between the occupation army and the national guard, dealing with incursions into the buffer zone and resolving disputes between the two sides.

It is, however, a false sense of security, as Unficyp is not mandated to stop a Turkish military advance, nor does it have the means to do so, but the small force’s presence has protected the status quo, acting as a mediator and a voice of reason between the two sides for which nothing is too trivial to bicker about. For the Turkish Cypriots, Unficyp is of no importance as they have Turkish troops to guarantee their security and protect the status quo, which is satisfactory at present.

Regardless of how Unficyp is viewed by the two communities, it has become a part of Cyprus life, almost a permanent fixture that will always be here to de-escalate tension and act as a valuable source of common sense, which does not exist in the politics of the Cyprus problem. But the reality is that the peacekeeping force will not stay here for another 60 years, as many Greek Cypriots seem to think, probably not even for another five.

UN troops are deployed in a country or region of conflict to keep the peace until a political agreement is reached between the warring sides. If no agreement is reached, within a reasonable time (60 years is not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination) the troops are withdrawn – an added, compelling reason is that there has been no fighting for 50 years. For how much longer will the Security Council renew the Unficyp mandate under these peaceful and stable conditions?

The peaceful conditions the UN presence has ensured contributed to the perpetuation of the problem as it has rendered a settlement a non-urgent matter. There have been numerous UN special representatives pandering to the two sides over the decades, undertaking initiatives, facilitating talks, proposing ideas, indicators and frameworks all of which were eventually rejected. Until 2003, Rauf Denktash, who was committed to partition, blocked progress and from 2004 onwards, the Cyprus president undertook this role.

For the Turkish side, the maintenance of the status quo is the settlement Denktash had always campaigned for, but for the Greek Cypriots, in theory it was not. The politicians have not been ready for a compromise in which they would have to share power with the Turkish Cypriots, giving people assurances that there would be another opportunity for an improved settlement in the future. That the UN was still here, was used as proof there would be future opportunities for a settlement. Even this argument is now wearing thin. After the collapse of talks in Crans Montana in July 2017 nothing happened for six-and-half years until the UN Secretary-General was persuaded to appoint Maria Angela Holguin as his personal envoy, who will have one last shot at securing a resumption of the talks.

If she fails, that would be the end of UN involvement in the Cyprus problem, which would also lead to the withdrawal of Unficyp, which will have no reason to carry on policing the buffer zone for another 60 years.

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