Norrie MacQueen continues his tour d’horizon of current United Nations peace operations by looking at the UN force in Cyprus. Like the smaller scale ventures in Palestine and Kashmir that he explored in last month’s CABLE, the Cyprus intervention has been about problems stemming from flawed decolonisation and apparently incompatible national aspirations. In place now for more than five decades, the UN force has successfully controlled inter-ethnic violence and tensions. It also withstood a full-scale Turkish invasion which brought about the effective partition of the island. Despite its success in the day-to-day management of conflict on the ground, the UN presence still awaits the opportunity to oversee the implementation of a long-term solution to the Cyprus problem.

A question: is a peace operation still underway in its sixth decade automatically to be judged a failure? The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) first arrived on the island in March 1964 and has been there ever since. It’s possible to make a defence of the UN operation, though. ‘Peacekeeping’ strictly speaking isn’t ‘peacemaking’, and if local politicians and international mediators either can’t or won’t do their part, then it’s not the peacekeepers’ fault; they’ve created the conditions on the ground for settlement and that’s their job done.

In this sense, UNFICYP has been a success. Situations over the past fifty-three years which could have slipped into wholesale massacre and ethnic cleansing between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been held in check by UN forces, both military and police. At the same time, those individuals responsible for finding a permanent solution to the conflict have proven themselves inadequate to the task. Over the past couple of years negotiations, urged on by both the UN and the European Union (with the American and British governments also weighing in), have in fact come tantalisingly close to success. But high optimism has faded more than once amidst the competing pressures on negotiating teams who constantly have to look over their shoulders at both their own ethnic constituencies and the larger schemes of their respective international sponsors, Greece and Turkey.


Cyprus became independent in August 1960 after a long but low intensity anti-colonial insurgency from within the Greek Cypriot majority community. The goal of the struggle was not pure independence but “enosis”: political union with Greece which would have made Cyprus, in effect, another Crete or Rhodes. But this was a forlorn aspiration given the fears of the Turkish Cypriot minority (just less that 20 percent of the population). For the Turkish community, the preferred outcome would have been the partition of the island into two ethnic micro-states. The compromise at independence took the form of a complex agreement for a unified state underwritten by special constitutional guarantees for the minority. This was to be overseen by Britain, Greece, and Turkey as ‘guarantor powers’.

The compromise at independence took the form of a complex agreement for a unified state underwritten by special constitutional guarantees for the minority. This was to be overseen by Britain, Greece, and Turkey as ‘guarantor powers’.

Soon however deep-seated inter-ethnic resentments, combined with friction over the complicated constitutional arrangements, led to violence. This became critical at the turn of 1963 and 1964 when the Greek Cypriot-dominated government tried to dilute some of the constitutional guarantees given to the Turkish Cypriots. British forces, from ‘sovereign bases’ in the country (agreed as part of the independence settlement), initially tried to control the situation but this could never be a long-term option, given the colonial history of the island.

An attempt to arrange a NATO intervention – all three guarantor powers were members of the alliance – made no headway. Cyprus itself was not in NATO and the Greek Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, was suspicious of what he saw as Anglo-American bias towards the Turkish side. Thus the crisis was placed firmly in the lap of the United Nations under its Burmese Secretary-General, U Thant.

Irish soldiers serving with UNFICYP escort Turkish Cypriots from an area in Famagusta which came under fire in April 1964. UN Photo/BZ

1964 was not a good year for the UN to launch a new peacekeeping operation. The huge intervention in the former Belgian Congo had ended after four fraught and ultimately unsuccessful years. Launched in 1960, the Congo operation followed the successful United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) which had done much to resolve the Suez crisis of 1956. UNEF in turn had come after the modest beginnings for UN peacekeeping in Palestine and Kashmir, explored in the previous part of this series.

But the Congo operation saw the three fundamental principles of peacekeeping tested to – and beyond – destruction. The central requirement of consent came to mean little in a fragmented and disintegrating state. The operation’s neutrality was challenged at every turn by the Soviet Union which accused the UN of serving western economic and political interests in the Congo. Finally, the notion of force only in self-defence was abandoned as UN units took the offensive – including conducting aerial bombing – to defeat western mercenaries and regional secessionists.

The outcome of all this was deep uncertainty within the UN, an Eastern bloc at odds with the organisation and determined to see the end of the entire peacekeeping project, and a UN death toll of several hundred (United Nations casualties went right to the top, with U Thant’s Swedish predecessor as Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld dying in a mysterious plane crash on the Congolese border in September 1961).


At the outset, the crisis in Cyprus appeared to be at least as threatening as the Congo had been to anyone rash enough to intervene. As in the Congo – and the previous missions we looked at in Palestine and Kashmir – the Cyprus force was required to deal with a post-imperial morass. But in 1964 in Cyprus, the situation seemed worse than any of the three preceding crises. The conflict of inter-ethnic aspirations was immediate, intimate, and tangled, rather than a matter simply of international allegiance.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, potential troop contributors to a peace operation in Cyprus had no assurance of reimbursement of costs. In retaliation for what it saw as UN misdeeds in the Congo, the Soviet Union had thoroughly sabotaged budgetary arrangements for peace operations.

The UN force for Cyprus was drawn from what are now the ‘usual suspects’ of peacekeeping operations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden.

Despite these obstacles, U Thant’s considerable persuasive powers managed to entice enough international ‘good citizens’ to commit troops. The UN force for Cyprus was drawn from what are now the ‘usual suspects’ of peacekeeping operations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden.

UNFICYP was deployed at the end of March 1964. It was the first and only UN peace operation on European soil, a distinction it held for the next quarter century until the interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And, of course, the UN presence shadowed the development of mass tourism in Cyprus, providing the incongruous sight of sunburned Brits in flip-flops mingling with blue berets in armoured cars.

In the event, the early fears that the UN operation would find itself in a bloody Congo-style quagmire didn’t materialise. Despite some sporadic outbreaks of violence, the UN force (eventually strengthened by international police contingents) managed the interfaces between the two communities quite effectively. A so-called ‘green line’ was created, along which UN troops, following standard peacekeeping tactics, interposed themselves as a physical buffer.

The United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)

First Deployed: March 1964; Total strength (2017): 1107 (including police); Contributing states (2017): Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Montenegro, Paraguay, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, UK; Fatalities (since 1964): 183

This calm was never other than uneasy, however, and the tenth anniversary of the force’s deployment was to prove both dramatic and traumatic. In July 1974, the rightist military junta which had ruled Greece since 1967 was on the point of collapse. In a desperate and miscalculated attempt to rally support, the regime in Athens provoked ultra-nationalist, pro-enosis agitation in Cyprus which forced the relatively moderate President Makarios into temporary exile. The Greek gambit was remarkably like that of the similarly beleaguered Argentine junta over the Falklands eight years later. The utterly counter-productive outcome was much the same too: Turkey invaded Cyprus.

There could be no question of the lightly-armed UN force resisting the Turkish army. Not only would they be hopelessly outgunned, the troop contributing countries would never have agreed to such a conflict. But the UN Secretary-General (now Kurt Waldheim of Austria) did manage to double the size of the UN force. In classic peacekeeping style, the mere presence of UN troops constrained the Turkish advance and prevented the fall of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia. For Turkey to have pressed ahead would have put it at odds with the UNFICYP states, all of them important international actors, with several also being NATO allies.


But there was now an inescapable ‘fact on the ground’: the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Partition had come about after all – and it was guaranteed by some 30,000 Turkish troops. The new entity covered about a third of the area of Cyprus, its borders roughly following the UN’s green line. In the process of its creation, around 200,000 Greek Cypriots had become refugees. This new arrangement was formally recognised only by Turkey.

Map of Cyprus, showing the Greek and Turkish administered areas and UN buffer zones. Image: CIA Factbook.

The forty-three years since the Turkish invasion have been marked by a succession of failed talks over reunification and a long-term settlement. The tempo and outcome of these negotiations has been shaped by frequent shifts in leadership in both parts of the island, with apparent progress being set back by the election of nationalistic governments, and then recovered when more liberal administrations reappear.

At the beginning of the new century, a further dimension was grafted onto the situation: as the European Union continued to expand after the end of the Cold War, the prospect of Cypriot membership arose. Turkey at first resisted this on any basis other than membership for the whole island, following agreed reunification. At one point, Ankara threatened formal absorption of the northern republic into Turkey if this was not accepted.

In 2002, the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried to break the deadlock and ease Cyprus into the EU as a unified state with a comprehensive peace plan. This was based on Cyprus being acknowledged as a bipartite federal state. The components of this would follow roughly the current borders between the two de facto ethnic territories with the national presidency rotating between the two communities. Parallel referendums in the two parts of the island returned sharply different results. The plan was accepted in the Turkish north but overwhelmingly rejected in the Greek south, where the proposal was seen as favouring the other side. Despite this apparent deal-breaker, Cyprus, minus the Turkish republic, was admitted to the EU in May 2004.

A UN buffer zone warning sign on the south (Greek) side of the Ledra Crossing of the Green Line in Nicosia, Cyprus. Image: Jpatokal [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Subsequently, relations between the two parts have gradually improved, though somewhat on a two-steps-forward-one-step-back pattern. Among other relaxations, new crossing points in the green line have been opened, overseen by the UN force.  A sequence of reunification talks chaired by a United Nations mediator began in 2004, on the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of the peacekeepers.

After stops, starts, and much misplaced optimism – and despite interventions by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and US Vice President Mike Pence – the talks finally broke down last July. The sticking points related to the events of 1974: whether or not Turkish troops would stay after reunification; and issues around the return of property to the Greek Cypriots who had fled north after the invasion.

The prospects are not entirely dark, perhaps. In some respects, it was remarkable that the most recent talks lasted as long as they did given the circumstances of Turkey’s own current politics and the baleful, uncompromising figure of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For one thing, the prospect of EU membership for the north is probably a greater pull now than it has been for the past few years as the economic possibilities of integration improve again after the post-2008 crash. Until such as times as these and other conditions are sufficiently strong to bring an enduring settlement, the UN force will remain in place, keeping the peace if not making it. Hopefully, it won’t be required for yet another another five decades.

Norrie MacQueen is the author of several books on the United Nations, peace operations, and humanitarian intervention. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations which has recently appeared in paperback. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of International Peacekeeping. Norrie was part of the Democratic Governance Support Unit of the UN integrated peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste during 2012 in the final phase of the operation. Norrie is also a Contributing Editor at CABLE. He’s on Twittter at @NorrieMacQueen Contact him at: 

Feature image: 11th August 2014; Major General Kristin Lund signs to assume her duties as Force Commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Cyprus where the top UN official, Lisa Buttenheim, was also a woman. That UN operation was the first in the world to have a dual female leadership. Image: UNFICYP