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The Cyprus Dispute: a Failure of UN Mediation?

By Lélia Rousselet, Researcher and Coordinator, Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Deputy Director of the Community, Open Diplomacy Institute

· Europe,Gouvernance mondiale

First article of a series published after the study trip organised by the Open Diplomacy Institute in Greece on 28th April - 1st May 2017.

Cyprus is a strategic geographic point in the Mediterranean area, at the intersection of three continents, and is often described as a “microcosm of external ambitions[1]. In the context of the Cold War, the dispute about the island was at the centre of the attention of the international community: Cyprus could at any moment become an object of military confrontation between Greece and Turkey, both members of NATO since 1952. While the 50th anniversary of the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus was celebrated in March 2014, the conflict still continues to move the international community today, especially because of the interweaving between the Cyprus dispute, Turkey’s aspiration to become a member of the European Union, and instability in the South-Mediterranean region. The peculiarity of this case study is that it seems immune to all attempts of peacemaking. As Epstein highlights it, the Cyprus dispute “has resisted with tenacity the efforts of nations great and small to bring about a solution. It frustrates diplomats, amazes outside observers, irritates those who believe we had made progress in studying techniques of negotiation, and has been a sore point with secretaries-general of the UN[2].

As in any persistent conflict, the literature is abundant, but often one-sided. Although these positions do not invalidate the relevance of the analyses, one has to be cautious in order not to duplicate this standardized discourse. More specifically, the studies by Bruce, Groom, Wolfe, Kyle, Camp, Keashly and Fisher offer detailed analyses of “third party interventions” in the Cyprus dispute, especially of UN attempts at mediation[3].

The objective of this article is to determine to what extent the mediation by a multilateral international organization such as the UN can facilitate the peace process in a conflict based on a territorial dispute. In this perspective, the case of Cyprus is singular because the UN have been involved since the 1960s, by adopting many strategies that didn’t materialize.

The historical background: from the Greek independence to the Annan Plan

Cyprus, given its geographic position at the Eastern extremity of the Mediterranean, has always been a strategic point in the area and a place of migratory and commercial exchanges. Historically, the inhabitants of Cyprus are of Hellenic culture, whereas they have successively been under Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, then Ottoman domination from 1571 to 1878 and British domination from 1878 to 1960.

The conflict that still divides the island today originates in the 1950s-1960s, during the independence process. When the Greek Cypriot community took up arms to assert its independence in the 1950s, the British rulers used Turkish militia to help the colonial troops. Greece chose to internationalise the conflict in 1954, by bringing it in the UN arena (a multilateral organization newly created at the time) because it was afraid of not being able to face alone the British opponent[4].

The Zurich and London Independence Treaties in 1959 gave Turkey a right of military intervention in case of major threat to the independence of the island. In 1960, Cyprus adopted a constitution and became an independent republic, member of the UN, based on a bicommunal institutional system in which the Turkish minority (representing 18% of the population) acquired an important political and military weight (30% of parliamentary seats and 40% of positions in the police)[5]. The Greek community considering these quotas as disproportionate attempted to reform the Constitution in the following years and this situation triggered strong tensions between communities which turned into violent clashes. In March 1964, Resolution 186 (1964) of the UN Security Council authorised the envoy of a UN peacekeeping force on the ground, the UNFICYP, which acted as a buffer force. This resolution had three implications: the establishment of the UNFICYP, the recognition of the effective control of the Greek Cypriot community on the Cypriot institutions, and the recognition of the UN accountability in the management of the peace process. Initially, an official mediator was appointed by the Secretary General. However, given the prevailing tensions between the two parties, the formal strategy of a “UN mediator” was abandoned in 1965 and replaced in 1966 by alternative mediations (the “Mission of Good Offices”[6]).

A Turkish tank in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1974 after Turkey, fearing a Cypriot union with Greece, invaded to protect Turkish Cypriots. Credit Associated Press.

In 1974, the conflict that we know today burst. The Colonels’ Regime who seized power in Greece by a military coup, tried to achieve Enosis, i.e. the union between Greece and Cyprus, with military intervention on the island. In response, Turkey invaded the island from the North (and justified this action by the Treaty negotiated with Great Britain at the time of independence) and quickly occupied 38% of the territory. The island was divided into two parts by a line, called the “Green Line”, on which were stationed the peacekeepers of the UNFICYP. In the North, the Turkish Cypriot community now lives, and in the South, the Greek Cypriot community. Although the first phase of the Turkish military intervention can be justified by the Treaty of Guarantee signed by Greece, Turkey and Great-Britain in 1960, the second phase clearly exceeds these prerogatives and can thus be considered by the international law as an illegal invasion[7].

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) formally declared its independence in 1983 but is not recognized by the international community (with the exception of Turkey). In its Resolution 541 (1983), the UN condemns the Turkish occupation. For twenty years, the situation remained in deadlock, the negotiations (including under the auspices of the UN) failing repeatedly, and the ceasefire being maintained by the presence of the UN force on the Green Line.

In 1990, the Republic of Cyprus presented a formal application for accession to the European Union. This request was made at the appropriate time, given that enlargement had become a priority for the EU since the end of the Cold War. The European identity of Cyprus was immediately recognized by the EU[8], and the Republic of Cyprus officially became an EU member in May 2004 (the accession including de facto only the southern part of the island).

The many years of negotiations by the UN and probably the change in Turkey’s policy (following the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Prime Minister in 2003) led to the Annan Plan in 2004, which included the organisation of a referendum to establish a federal state. While it was accepted by 65% of the Turkish community of northern Cyprus, the Annan Plan was rejected on April 24, 2004, by more than 70% of Greek Cypriots. The last ten years have been marked by a lack of progress, although some crossings between the North and the South of the island have been locally opened. The economic crisis in 2008 and the recent discovery of gas resources can be seen as new obstacles to reunification, despite the continuous efforts of Ban Ki-Moon’s special envoys.

This contextualization of the conflict firstly shows that its causes are ancient and multiple, and secondly, that it is neither only a confrontation between Greece and Turkey, nor a sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims. Indeed, from the beginning of the dispute, there has been a plurality of actors (Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Great Britain, etc.) aggravated by the internationalisation of the conflict which led to the involvement of international organisations, especially the UN, for whom religious differences between parties is not a source of conflict in itself. Thus, contrary to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for example, the Cyprus dispute appears as a territorial conflict that has not turned into an inter-confessional conflict.

The divided capital, Nicosia. Credit Petros Karadjias/Associated Press.

The ineffectiveness of the UN mediation and the necessity to identify the actors of peace

The UN has a key role in the Cyprus dispute, given that the UNFICYP is one of the first peace operations undertaken by the organization. There are two aspects of the UN intervention in Cyprus: first the peacekeeping mission (the “blue helmets” present in the buffer zone[9]), and the mediation carried out through negotiations and the proposal of ‘plans’ of conflict resolution (peacemaking negotiations, the “Mission of Good Offices” headed by the Special Adviser to the Secretary General, and actions of other UN agencies on the island). Indeed, there are both a military and police component and a diplomatic or political component. However, the prerogatives of the two entities are intimately linked. The UN force in charge of peacekeeping in Cyprus has two missions: preventing a restarting of the fighting and maintaining the military status quo, and restoring a normal situation and humanitarian activities. As part of this second mission, for the first time UNFICYP organized an informal meeting between the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot mayors of Nicosia in 2013[10]. Financially, the Force costs about 55 million dollars annually, of which 18 million are paid by the Cypriot government and 7 million by the Greek government. The two sides have not officially signed the “1989 aide-mémoire” determining the layout of the cease-fire lines and buffer zones established by the UN.

The UN intervened in Cyprus in 1964, at the request of Greece. This will to internationalise the conflict and to appeal to the UN as a mediating instrument was analysed by some authors as an exploitation of the UN for the purposes of national policy: ”The Greek Cypriots would have been able to ‘squeeze them dry’ without the skillful use of the UN as an instrument of national policy. The key to their success lies in the effective utilization of the UN, especially the General Assembly, as a means for the mobilization of world public opinion and as a lever for the exercise of global political pressure[11]. This calling into question of the impartiality of the UN as a mediator has certainly had an impact on the effectiveness of UN actions (and their being accepted by the Turks), although it is unrealistic to consider that the Greek community was able to manipulate the whole international community.

The main UN mediation attempt seems to have failed since the Annan Plan was rejected by referendum in April 2004. Yet, this plan had been determined after negotiations between Greece and Turkey, and had the support of the international community. How can it be explained that the Greek Cypriot community rejected the plan? According to the plan, each part of the island had to accept a maximum of 33% of inhabitants of the other community on its territory. However, before the Turkish military intervention in 1974, the Greek Cypriot community accounted for nearly 79% of the inhabitants of the northern part of the island. On the whole, the plan would have given a weight to the Turkish community considered too strong by the Greek Cypriots. The Turkish presence on the island would have been legalised and internationally recognised, which could seem possible for Greece but not for a majority of Greek Cypriots.

From left, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci; the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon; and the Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, at settlement talks in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland, in November 2016. Credit Fabrice Coffrini/Reuters.

Thus, the effectiveness of the UN as a mediator of the Cyprus dispute can be questioned. Although several resolutions were taken, showing an operational functioning of the UN as a forum for dialogue among nations and a catalyser of compromise, the UN actors did not always have the capacities necessary for their field implementation. “The effectiveness of the UN as a guardian of peace, or as an instrument of national policy, is limited because of its inability to implement resolutions”, highlights J. S. Joseph[12]. Paradoxically, the failure of the referendum emphasized its necessity: the adoption of the plan by representatives without popular support would have been useless because it would not have allowed the end of tensions nor clashes. Finally, we must emphasize the importance of linking the peacekeeping and peacemaking dimensions: with the persistence of the conflict, the parties seem to forget that the UN peacekeeping force intervenes only to allow a situation that is conducive to peacemaking. In the event of a failure of sustainable peacemaking negotiations, the peacekeepers would have to leave the field, leaving Cyprus without an intervention force[13].

Beyond the importance of identifying the actors of the conflict, it seems essential to question the actors of the peace.

Although the UN has not been able to provide appropriate conditions for pacification on Cyprus, the elements necessary for a successful mediation were there: the UN process was informal and flexible (which suited both parties), confidential and impartial (which helped to win the trust of both parties), and had no pre-established purpose (thus, the parties could participate in negotiations without committing to anything)[14]. The failure of UN mediation invites us to reflect on the actors involved in negotiations and the peace process. A negotiated peace between leaders without a dialogue with the population may be rejected by the population due to lack of support. In this sense, conflict resolution and peace process cannot only be worked out through the signing of a treaty, an agreement or a plan. Important background work should be done with and by the population. This is where the internal factor of the failure of UN mediation lies. The various attempts of the UN have failed to change the respective perceptions of the parties: Greek Cypriots continue to see the Turkish Cypriots as a minority which cannot claim more rights than those of a minority, and the Turkish Cypriots still feel that the Greek Cypriot community is threatening their lives and their autonomy. The Cypriot case-study invites us to think of peace as a construction, in which the support of all stakeholders should be sought at each stage.

Beyond a study of UN mediation, one can notice with the Cypriot case that several conflict resolution processes by third players can interact and threaten each other. We can assume that the accession of Cyprus to the European Union has drastically changed the characteristics of the conflict and nullified the UN mediation process embodied by the Annan plan. The Greek Cypriot community, which became a member of the EU, found itself in a strong position compared to Turkey, a position which could allow to negotiate a better deal. “There was no need to accept the Annan Plan. The island’s accession to the European Union would fundamentally alter the balance of power in favor of the Greek Cypriot community[15]. Such an assumption is enhanced by the fact that the referendum was held just a week before the official date of accession of Cyprus to the EU on May 1, 2004. The relevance of such questioning is reinforced by the current trend of increasing both the number and types of peace actors: international organisations such as the UN, the EU or NATO, private actors, peace professionals, NGOs, religious groups, etc. Although the ultimate goal of all these players is the same (peace and conflict resolution), the means to achieve it are often different (top-down or bottom-up pacification strategies, more or fewer concessions, different temporalities, etc.). The risk of such a situation is less to create duplications and recurrences than to lead to deadlock or hardening of positions in the case of a failure of one of the mediation attempts.

[1] MALLINSON W., Cyprus, Diplomatic History and the Clash of Theory in International Relations, IB. Tauris, Londres & New York, 2009, p. 139.

[2] EPSTEIN M. A., “Efforts to resolve the Cyprus dispute”, in BENDAHMANE D. B. et MCDONALD J. W., Perspectives on Negotiation, Washington, Foreign Service Institute, 1986, p. 99.

[3] Cf. BRUCE L. H., “Cyprus: a last chance”, Foreign Policy n°58, 1985; CAMP G. D., “UN efforts at mediation”, in BENDAHMANE D. B. et MCDONALD J. W., Perspectives on Negotiation, Washington, Foreign Service Institute, 1986; GROOM A. J. R., “Cyprus: light at the end of the tunnel”, Millenium: Journal of International Studies, 1980; KYLE K., Cyprus, London, Minority Rights Group, 1984; WOLFE, “A historical Review of the dispute”, London, Minority Rights Group, 1984; KEASHLY L., FISHER R. J., “Towards a contingency approach to third party intervention in regional conflict: A Cyprus illustration”, International Journal, 1990, 45(2), pp. 424-453.

[4] FAUSTMAN H., “The UN and the Internationalization of the Cyprus Conflict, 1949-58”, p. 3, in RICHMOND O. P. and KER-LINDSAY J., The work of the UN in Cyprus: Promoting Peace and Development, Great Britain: Palgrave Publishers, 2001.

[5] See La Documentations française, « Chypre : vers la réunification ? », June 2011. Available on: (18/05/2017).

[6] KER-LINDSAY J., The Cyprus Problem: What everyone needs to know, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 40-41.

[7] Ibid, pp. 44-45.

[8] Cf. European Commission, opinion of June 30, 1993: “Cyprus’s geographical position, the deep-lying bonds which, for two thousand years, have located the island at the very fount of European culture and civilization, the intensity of the European influence apparent in the values shared by the people of Cyprus (...) all these confer on Cyprus, beyond all doubt, its European identity and character and confirm its vocation to belong to the community”.

[9]On December 15, 2013, the size of the military component was 857 soldiers of all ranks, and the police component counted 65 people”, Report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Cyprus, Security Council, 30 December 2013.

[10] Report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Cyprus, Security Council, 30 December 2013, p. 3, section 11.

[11] JOSEPH J. S., Cyprus: Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, Great Britain:Palgrave, 1999, pp. 113-114.

[12] Ibid., p. 115.

[13] MIRBAGHERI F., Cyprus and International Peacemaking, London, Hurst & Company, 1998, p. 158.

[14] Ibid., p. 157.

[15] KER-LINDSAY J., The Cyprus Problem: What everyone needs to know, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 70.

References :

  • Books

KER-LINDSAY J., The Cyprus Problem: What everyone needs to know, Oxford University Press, 2011

KER-LINDSAY J., FAUSTMAN H., MULLEN F., An Island in Europe: the EU and the transformation of Cyprus, London, IB Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2011

MALLINSON W., Cyprus, Diplomatic History and the Clash of Theory in International Relations, IB. Tauris, Londres & New York, 2009

MIRBAGHERI F., Cyprus and International Peacemaking, London, Hurst & Company, 1998

  • Articles

DREVET J.-F., “Chypre et l’Union européenne (UE)”, EchoGéo, December 2013. Available on: (18/05/2017)

KEASHLY L., FISHER R. J., “Towards a contingency approach to third party intervention in regional conflict: A Cyprus illustration”, International Journal, 1990, 45(2), pp. 424-453. Available on: (18/05/2017)

THEOPHANOUS A., “Cyprus, the European Union and the Search for a New Constitution”, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans Online, 2:2, 2010. Available on: (18/05/2017)

ZERVAKIS P. A., “Cyprus in Europe: Solving the Cyprus Problem by Europeanizing it?”, The Quaterly Journal, vol. III, n°1, March 2004. Available on: (18/05/2017)

  • Reports

Report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Cyprus, Security Council, 30 December 2013, “Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality”, International Crisis Group - Europe, Report n°229, 14 March 2014. Available on: (18/05/2017)

Photo graph at the top: National flags of Greece and Cyprus.

Les opinions et interprétations exprimées dans les publications engagent la seule responsabilité de leurs auteurs, dans le respect de l'article 3 des statuts de l'Institut Open Diplomacy et de sa charte des valeurs.

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