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Keeping but not Making Peace: the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

The Cyprus problem, still unresolved a quarter of a century since I wrote this analysis of the UN peacekeeping force, originally published in 1994:

Twenty-nine years after its establishment, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) continues to monitor a de facto ceasefire between Turkish forces, Turkish Cypriot security forces and the Greek Cypriot National Guard.  In terms of its limited peacekeeping mandate, UNFICYP has been a success, but arguably its success in maintaining the status quo on the island, since the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, has developed into a disincentive to a peace settlement.

The Republic of Cyprus was granted independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, after diplomatic efforts to ensure in its constitution a government structure for the harmonious coexistence of the island’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

The territorial integrity and constitutional guarantees for both communities of the new republic were endorsed and guaranteed in the 1959 Zurich-London accords between the UK, Turkey and Greece and also endorsed by representatives of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.  The Accords and subsequent treaties established the UK, Turkey and Greece as guarantor powers of the basic articles of the constitution.

From early on, the new republic suffered a number of constitutional crises concerning the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot elements of the government which were guaranteed in the constitution. After only three years, conflict broke out between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, prompted in part by the President’s decision to amend the constitution which was seen by the Turkish Cypriots as reducing their equal status rights to those of a minority.  

The guarantor powers, all of which maintained forces on the island, offered to form a joint peacekeeping force under British command to restore peace and order.  The Government of Cyprus accepted the offer and the force was established on 26 December 1963.  Three days later a ceasefire was arranged and a neutral zone, or ‘green line’, was established between the areas occupied by the two communities in Nicosia.  The guarantor powers also arranged a conference involving all parties to negotiate a settlement, but negotiations failed. The Government of Cyprus then rejected proposals to strengthen the peacekeeping force and insisted that any force be placed under UN control.  The peacekeeping had failed to prevent the inter-communal fighting and the Government of Cyprus feared military intervention by Greece and Turkey.

The UN Secretary-General appointed a personal representative to observe the peacekeeping operation in January 1964 and, in March, with the consent of the Government of Cyprus, the Security Council established  (by Security Council Resolution 186) a UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus with a mandate 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.

An initial force of about 6,000 was deployed on the island under a three-monthly mandate.  UNFICYP established a number of observation posts throughout the island in areas of tension, on the ‘green line’, in mixed villages and in Turkish Cypriot enclaves. UNFICYP negotiated ceasefires in numerous, isolated outbreaks of violence and provided humanitarian assistance, in cooperation with other UN agencies and non-government organisations such as the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross, seeking to ensure the provision of services and return to normality for all sections of the population.

After a severe deterioration in 1967, involving Greek and Turkish forces on the island, the Security Council strengthened the UNFICYP mandate to provide for supervision of the disarmament of forces constituted after 1963 (SCR 244). Greek national troops were withdrawn from Cyprus by January 1968, with the exception of small contingents provided for under the treaty of alliance, but, since Greece and Turkey could not agree on reciprocal arrangements for disarmament, UNFICYP did not take on the role of supervision of disarmament.  Concerted UN attempts at peace negotiations, including the parties as well as Greece, Turkey and the UK, failed to resolve the conflict between the two communities of Cyprus.  UNFICYP’s mandate was thereafter extended by the Security Council every six months.

After a coup by the Greek Cypriot National Guard, supported by Greek military authorities, and the subsequent invasion and occupation of part of northern Cyprus by Turkish forces in July 1974, the guarantor powers Greece, Turkey and the UK agreed to an expanded role for UNFICYP (noted by the UN Security Council in SCR 355 of 1974) to establish and secure a security zone, or ‘buffer zone’, between the opposing parties and to protect Turkish Cypriot enclaves.  The expanded mandate gave UNFICYP the force strength to maintain peace in the buffer zone.  UNFICYP mapped the territory held by the opposing parties and set up observation posts to mark out and secure the buffer zone.  UNFICYP also took on a greater range of humanitarian functions, which included assisting the movement of people across the buffer zone, allowing farming in the buffer zone and provision of emergency medical services, and which were noted in SCR 359 (1974).  Further international mediation efforts since 1974, firstly by the UK and subsequently under the auspices of the good offices of the UN Secretary-General and other attempts by the Commonwealth have failed to achieve a settlement.

The Security Council has continued to routinely extend UNFICYP’s mandate every six months.  UNFICYP operated with the full consent of all parties until 1983.  ON 15 November 1983 the Turkish Cypriots proclaimed a ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (‘TRNC’).  The ‘TRNC’ was declared legally invalid by the Security Council and has been recognized only by Turkey.  The ‘TRNC’ has not accepted Security Council resolutions extending UNFICYP’s mandate.

From the beginning of efforts to agree on a constitutional structure for the new state, the three powers, Greece, Turkey and the UK, had different interests which impacted on the development of ethnic tension on the island.  Given the continued partisan interests of two of the three ‘guarantor powers’, the trilateral mechanism established under the Zurich-London Accords proved inadequate as a preventive guarantee for the stability of the new state.  Subsequent trilateral peacemaking faced the obstacles of a breakdown in community relations in scattered and mixed-population areas and the difficulty of imposing peace when community faith in the institutions in the new state had deteriorated, possibly beyond repair.

UNFICYP was established as a typical ‘peacekeeping’ force, i.e., impartial, with the consent of the governments concerned, and with provision to carry arms but only to use them in self-defence.  It had no time limit (mandate renewals became routine), no timetable of action, and no built-in incentives or penalties for the parties. The force had no mandate to broker a solution to the conflict.

UNFICYP was not successful in attempts to encourage the parties to demobilize, dismantle fortifications or to restore normalized conditions.  While ceasefires were negotiated in many locations, UNFICYP came under fire on numerous occasions and suffered many casualties. UNFICYP subsequently sought pragmatically to maintain the military status quo and prevent deterioration of the situation and, by such action, provide some degree of stability to aid the separate negotiation process.

UNFICYP’s hold on the status quo began to slip after the failure of Greece and Turkey to agree on disarmament after the deterioration of the situation in 1967. Despite the subsequent addition of disarmament monitoring to UNIFYP’s mandate, it was powerless to carry out this function.  Arms imports and military build-ups by opposing sides in the following years, and up to the present day, have contributed to a worsening of the situation, making a political settlement much more difficult.  Turkish forces of about 30,000 are stationed north of the buffer zone and the Cypriot National Guard has forces comprising 10,000 regulars and about 65,000 reserves.  UNFICYP was unable to establish a demilitarized zone adjacent to the buffer zone. While the parties agreed in high-level talks in 1979 that an objective would be for a future federation to be demilitarized, for the time being fully-armed forces are deployed right up to the buffer zone in numerous locations.  Despite arms embargoes by the United States and the United Kingdom against both sides, the international community has not prevented massive imports of arms into Cyprus.

The international hostilities on the island after the coup and invasion challenged UNFICYP’s traditional ‘peacekeeping’ mandate.  Rather than withdraw the force, the Security Council called on all parties to cooperate with UNFICYP.  The conclusion of a ceasefire allowed UNFICYP to continue under the same mandate, with some additional responsibilities, even though the whole basis of the conflict had changed to one of occupation of part of a state by a foreign power.  The Turkish forces established a new status quo on the island which UNFICYP, with its limited peacekeeping mandate, was not equipped to challenge.  Arguably, UNFICYP’s establishment and maintenance of the integrity of the buffer zone helped to legitimize the Turkish held zone in northern Cyprus by dividing the island from the time of the invasion on the basis of territory help by opposing parties.

On the ground, UNFICYP established credibility by securing control of Nicosia International Airport and by adequately patrolling the buffer zone. The buffer zone was delineated by the UN in 1974 but not accepted by either side, thus contributing to instability. The original map drawn up in 1974 has been lost.  Forces on either side periodically attempt to retake territory within the zone patrolled by UNFICYP, which varies from twenty metres to seven kilometres in width and totals about three per cent of the island’s land area.  UNFICYP operations have remained constrained by a lack of cooperation by the parties in facilitating access by UNFICYP to certain areas of the island, in particular in the northern zone.

The civilian police component of UNFICYP has generally been recognized as invaluable for functions such as oversight of law and order, oversight of searches conducted by the respective authorities at their request and helping to maintain the integrity of the buffer zone.  Australia currently provides a civilian police contingent to UNFICYP of twenty Australian Federal Police officers.

From its establishment, the financing of UNFICYP was insecure, relying on voluntary contributions by force contributors.  Other UN peacekeeping forces were funded either by assessed contributions or (at an earlier stage) from the UN regular budget.  A financing deficit has been a constant feature of the force, in recent years creating difficulties for the UN in encouraging countries to contribute forces to UNFICYP and, recently, has been a factor in the withdrawal or scaling down of some troop contributions.  On 27 May 1993, the Security Council decided (by SCR 831) to change the financing of UNFICYP to assessed contributions for costs in excess of those met by voluntary contributions from Cyprus and Greece, which total over half of UNFICYP’s annual cost.  At the same time a number of countries, including the United States and Russia, signaled their dissatisfaction with the lack of progress towards a settlement in Cyprus.  The Resolution called for a comprehensive reassessment of UNFICYP at the time of the December 1993 mandate renewal, which has subsequently been postponed until February 1994.

The Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus and the subsequent proclamation of the ‘TRNC’ have continued to be unacceptable to the international community and multilateral peacemaking initiatives have been built on the premise that agreement could be reached on a bi-zonal, bi-communal, federal structure for a reunited Cyprus.  Although leaders of the two communities pledged themselves in high-level talks in 1977 and 1979 to the establishment of a bi-communal Federal Republic of Cyprus, negotiation positions of both sides have placed obstacles before such a settlement.

In recent UN-sponsored negotiations, the parties have concentrated on a number of proposed confidence-building mechanisms (CBMs): establishment of a UN-administered bi-communal zone of Varosha, allowing the return of some of the town’s original inhabitants, 90 per cent of whom were of Greek Cypriot origin, with guarantees to protect the economic interests of Turkish Cypriots and the reopening of Nicosia International Airport under UN administration.

While agreement by the two sides on even the proposed CBMs is proving difficult, the concept of CBMs raises an important tactical question: are CBMs likely to assist the peace process along the road to a full settlement (as intended); or are they likely to distract the parties from tacking the substantive issues; and, crucially, in the event that the CBMs should fail to be implemented or fail to be perceived as successful in implementation, would they set back the peace process?

In 1964 Cyprus had 123 ethnically mixed towns and villages.  There is now one.  Following the Turkish invasion of 1974, Greece, Turkey and the UK agreed in Geneva to allow Turkish Cypriots in the south of the island to move to the north and Greek Cypriots in the north to move to the south with the assistance of UNFICYP.  UNFICYP took control from Greek and Greek Cypriot forces of all Turkish enclaves outside the northern zone.  The Security Council noted these functions carried out by UNFICYP in SCR 355 (1974). UNFICYP also helped Maronite Greek Cypriots who had fled south to subsequently return to the north.  UNFICYP monitors the voluntary nature of subsequent ethnic movements, which are rare.  About 500 Greek Cypriots remain in the enclave of Karpas Peninsula in the north east of the island.

The facilitation of ethnic movements by UNFICYP was an assistance measure to save lives.  In the course of time, UNFICYP’s actions, constrained as they were by the peacekeeping mandate and the lack of a peace settlement between the parties, may in retrospect have made a return to pre-conflict ethnic populations non-viable. UNFICYP has, however, promoted a return to normal conditions, in particular encouraging bi-communal contacts, rapprochement between the communities, farming, small businesses and other humanitarian activities in the buffer zone.  Among the growing number of humanitarian tasks included are medical treatment, payment of pensions, delivery of mail, provision of pharmaceuticals and family reunions.  As a result of the ‘TRNC’ preventing applications by Turkish Cypriots living in the south for family visits to the north and preventing all Orthodox Greek Cypriots from entering the north, family reunions with enclaved members of both communities take place at the Nicosia checkpoint.

Although UNFICYP has played an important role in conflict management, it had no responsibility for reaching a political solution.  The absence of a time limit or timetable of action (e.g., a plebiscite on the island’s future) or any other built-in schedule of incentives or penalties for the parties to reach a political solution has meant that UNFICYP’s presence has not given much impetus to finding a long term resolution of the Cyprus problem.  The Security Council did take punitive measures against the ‘TRNC’ (principally non-recognition and consequent restrictions on its international contacts, such as air services), but not as part of any gradated scheme designed to induce the parties to work towards a political settlement.  The existence of the force for such an extended period has reinforced the de facto division of Cyprus, and UNFICYP has been a part of arrangements which have divided the island for 29 years on the basis of territory held by opposing sides.  Each extra year of this arrangement arguably makes returning to one state on the island less politically realistic.

In terms of conflict management in the absence of a likely peace settlement, UNFICYP remains a necessary interim measure.  Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides has expressed concern, as did his predecessor, at the possibility of an escalation in the conflict if UNFICYP were to cease or scale down its operations before as settlement has been achieved.  Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash has stated that an observer force would be adequate.

It cannot be assumed that the patience of the international community is limitless. With prospects for an early political settlement in Cyprus uncertain and troop contributors owed large sums in arrears because of the former voluntary financing arrangement, a number of countries, Denmark, Finland, Canada, Sweden and the UK, have withdrawn or foreshadowed withdrawal or reduction of their forces from UNFICYP.  However, a number of countries have provided replacement forces, in particular Argentina, which has provided a battalion to replace the departing Canadian battalion.  The introduction of assessed contributions for UNFICYP may make it easier for the UN to find countries willing to contribute forces.  The UN Security Council asked in SCR 889 (1993) that the Secretary-General keep under constant review the further possible restructuring of UNFICYP.  The Security Council’s thorough review of UNFICYP, scheduled for February 1994, which will include the future role of the UN, could usefully consider linking continuation of UNFICYP with progress on a peace settlement.

Overall, UNFICYP has been valuable as an exercise in conflict management.  Its value as an element in conflict resolution is, however, dubious and raises questions about constructing mandates for peacekeeping operations which are open-ended and do not link the length of deployment of a UN force to steps towards longer-term resolution of underlying problems.

Originally published as a chapter in Clements, K. & Ward, R., Building International Community: Cooperating for Peace Case Studies, Sydney, 1994; the companion volume to Evans, G., Cooperating for Peace, Sydney, 1993

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