Unficyp at 60: after arriving for a three-month period the peace keeping force is far and away the longest serving in the history of the UN

Monday marks exactly 60 years since the passage of United Nations Security Council resolution 186, which, among other things, created the UN’s Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (Unficyp).

The force was created in response to the outbreak of intercommunal violence on the island which had begun the previous December with the Bloody Christmas of 1963. By the time they arrived, 25,000 Turkish Cypriots had already been displaced into enclaves and Nicosia had already been geographically divided along ethnic lines.

Unficyp initially arrived with a three-month mandate but had grown into a sizeable force of 6,500 peacekeepers by June 1964. That figure had fallen to just 2,340 by the time Turkey invaded the island just over ten years later, and today is smaller still.

There are currently 792 peacekeepers present on the island, the majority of whom hail from the United Kingdom, Argentina and Slovakia.

The geography of the task has changed in the 60 years of Unficyp’s presence, too. The whole island had initially been divided into seven sectors of Unficyp competence, centring around the towns of Paphos, Lefka, Limassol, Nicosia, Larnaca, Kyrenia and Famagusta.

Following Turkey’s invasion of the island and the subsequent population exchange which divided Cyprus, Unficyp’s task effectively transformed into manning the buffer zone between those two sides and has stayed that way ever since.

There are now three sectors. Sector one starts at the buffer zone’s westernmost point, the Kokkina exclave, and extends eastwards as far as the village of Mammari. It has been the responsibility of the Argentinian contingent since 1993.

Sector two extends from Mammari to the eastern Nicosia suburb of Kaimakli and is the responsibility of the British contingent. The third sector, known as Sector four, covers the eastern section of the buffer zone between Kaimakli and the island’s eastern coast.

The operation, the longest ever in UN history, has for 60 years been run from the Blue Beret Camp at the now abandoned Nicosia airport.

Keeping the peace is not a cheap activity, with Unficyp’s current annual budget standing at $56,225,300 (€51,817,236). A sizeable proportion of this budget is financed by the government of Cyprus and by Greece, which has been a point of controversy among Turkish Cypriot politicians in the past.

The Turkish Cypriots have on occasion attempted to redress this perceived imbalance, with former Turkish Cypriot Leader Mustafa Akinci calling for Unficyp to sign a separate State of Force agreement with the north in 2018.

His successor Ersin Tatar echoed this sentiment and even gave Unficyp an ultimatum to recognise the north or leave in 2022, though he never followed up on these demands.

Most recently, relations between Turkish Cypriot leadership and Unficyp deteriorated further in August last year when a peacekeeper was punched in the face while attempting to block the “unauthorised” construction of a road through the buffer zone between the villages of Pyla and Arsos by Turkish Cypriot authorities.

The incident received worldwide condemnation, though did initially seem to offer a window for reconciliation when a “mutual understanding” was found to allow the road and other infrastructure projects to be constructed in the area by both the Turkish Cypriot and the Greek Cypriot community.

However, works swiftly ground to a halt after the north insisted they had not consented to the Greek Cypriot works being carried out in the area, and no progress has been made in the buffer zone in the four months since.

The road could be seen as a microcosm of much of the last 60 years. Fury and violence gave way to UN-facilitated reconciliation efforts, which produced nothing major.

That is not to say that Unficyp has done nothing, but Cyprus is as Cyprus is. Unficyp now enters month 721 of existence after initially being handed a three-month mandate, with the Cyprus problem only marginally closer to a solution than it was when they arrived.

Efforts to keep the peace have been commended, however, with Unficyp chief Colin Stewart paying tribute to the “more than 150,000 women and men from the military and police forces who have served with Unficyp since 1964.”

“Peacekeepers make great sacrifices and are often deployed far from their homes and families, serving at great personal risk, and at times under demanding conditions, to serve the cause of peace,” he said, adding his thanks to those who had served.

He also touched on the Good Offices mission, which has facilitated programmes such as the bicommunal technical committees.

He said the Good Offices mission and Unficyp “play a crucial role in helping to bring people from the two communities together, often for the first time, to overcome mistrust and help build confidence in a shared future together.

“Our work with young people and women’s groups is bringing them together to work on shared challenges and develop common solutions for the future. We also strive to ensure that the eventual solution to the Cyprus problem is found in a consultative and inclusive manner,” he said.

“Peacekeeping on its own cannot solve the issue of the divide on the island,” he noted, adding “ultimately, the decision on their future is in the hands of Cypriots themselves.

“Let these 60 years serve as a reminder that the Cyprus issue has gone unresolved for far too long,” he said.

UN Undersecretary-general for peace operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix said each peacekeeper “serving under the blue flag has made an indispensable contribution to maintaining stability on the island.”

Over the 60 years officials from 43 member states have served with Unficyp, with more than 150,000 women and men from their military and police forces passing through the island since 1964. In the same time period, 187 Unficyp personnel lost their lives.

“60 years is a long time – longer than peacekeeping was intended to be needed. Therefore, this anniversary is a reminder that all actors must redouble their efforts to once and for all resolve the Cyprus issue,” Lacroix said.