Caution: UN at work

As the agreement that held the newly founded Republic of Cyprus was falling apart in intercommunal fighting in early 1964, the United Nations stepped in, noting that «the situation in Cyprus was likely to threaten international peace and security.» With the consent of the government of Cyprus, and following a resolution adopted unanimously by the Security Council, the United Nations established its peacekeeping force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) that March. This was the eighth peacekeeping force to be set up by the UN. Its mandate – originally for three months – was to prevent a recurrence of fighting, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order, and to contribute to a return to normal conditions. More than 38 years later, the force is still there, making it one of the UN’s oldest peacekeeping efforts. And the measure of its success is debatable. The island is divided, a large part of it is under foreign occupation and Nicosia remains the world’s last divided capital a full 13 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But then again, one wonders what the 1,200 or so blue berets could have done to stop the Greek-Cypriot hotheads from staging their coup against Archbishop Makarios in July 1974 or the two waves of invading Turkish forces that followed. After nearly four decades of tension, and another 28 in which the northern third of the island has been under Turkish occupation, it is intriguing to consider what the «normal conditions» mentioned in UNFICYP’s mandate might be. But this brings us to the simple, uncomfortable fact that it is not up to the soldiers patrolling under the UN flag to bring about «normality.» Nor can the people who live far away, in Athens and Ankara (or Washington or London), who get worked up about it. It is the people who live on Cyprus who must achieve the miracle of normality in a state divided by invasion, bad blood, barbed wire, conflicting histories and the enmity born of the two communities demonizing each other without the daily contact that would allow them to solve differences. And that is where the United Nations is making a great effort right now. After decades of providing its good offices to facilitate talks between the Cypriot president of the time and the perennial Turkish-Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, Secretary-General Kofi Annan last Monday presented a specific proposal aimed at giving both sides most of what they want. He wants to know this Monday whether President Glafcos Clerides and Denktash agree that his plan is, as he titled it, a «Basis for Agreement on a Comprehensive Solution to the Cyprus Problem.» Annan’s proposal comes at a most interesting time for Cyprus and for the United Nations itself. Just two days after the plan was presented to Clerides and Denktash, and to Greece, Turkey and Britain, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced that he had agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq to search for chemical, biological and nuclear arms – in accordance with a unanimous decision taken by the Security Council. How do the two issues tie in with each other? On Cyprus, the UN is fulfilling its core task of helping solve problems among its member states. Cyprus is a sovereign country which is partially under foreign occupation. This – and the illegitimate statelet whose 19th birthday Turkish officials celebrated yesterday – is something that disturbs international order. Legitimizing this division would set a precedent that would «threaten international peace and security» to a far greater extent than did the fighting between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the early ’60s. So, after acknowledging for the past three decades that it could not force a solution on Cyprus, the UN has presented the basis for an agreement in order to bring the two sides together on the issues on which they agree and to spur negotiations on the rest. Regarding Iraq, the world’s superpower and the other «Great Powers» who are permanent members of the Security Council pulled the United Nations back from the brink of disaster. For a few months it had appeared that the United States was ready to go after Saddam Hussein on its own, assisted perhaps by Britain and a few other allies, without going through the Security Council, where it would have to bring on board Russia, China and France. This would have been a potentially fatal blow to the organization that had managed to oversee more than half a century of relative harmony and development in the world. If the USA had acted outside the UN framework, it might have prevented many countries from allying themselves with it – because it could not tell its perhaps reluctant citizens that all they were doing was marching in time with the rest of the world. Secondly, if other strong countries began to act outside of the UN, the international order would quickly unravel and let loose stronger countries against weaker ones. Lack of law and order would legitimize every fait accomplis, something that Turkey would have loved dearly after its invasion of Cyprus. In that case, where would Cyprus be today? Nations have to work with each other within a set of rules to survive. The USA, Russia, China and other great powers are no exception. They cannot count on their own military strength and alliances if they allow the world to throw away the rule book of international behavior. Even if the mighty will always break (or bend) the rules with impunity as long as they are mighty, they too need to know that the world has some channels for coexistence and cooperation, that it is not an endless slaughter that will consume them some day. At a time when international terrorists inspired by Osama bin Laden have made the world a more treacherous place, we need to hold on to as much of the collective power of civilized humanity as we can. So this was a big week for the United Nations. Its most powerful member, staying within the fold of world order that it set up in 1945, saw the benefit of this unity on Wednesday: Faced with a solid front, where not even Russia or France stood aside, Saddam Hussein folded. He had no option. If the ultimatum had been issued by the same five permanent members of the Security Council but outside the UN, he may well have claimed that the rest of the world was on his side. As it was, Arab nations were able to say that they agreed with the UN demand, though they remained opposed to the threat of war. (They will obviously have to deal with that question when they get to it.) Meanwhile, Cyprus is preparing for a deadline of its own, replying to Annan on Monday – not, like Iraq, to evade an invasion but in order to undo some of the damage of a previous one. Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Greeks and Turks are evaluating the UN plan. After so many years of stalemate, many on all sides have become used to the state of affairs and are wary of any change. This makes the task by those who must shoulder the responsibility that much more difficult. But those who believed that a viable solution could be found for Cyprus also knew that it would be painful. Neither side could expect to get only what it wanted. The UN proposal now demands that the people of Cyprus concentrate on what they want for their island’s future. In Athens and Ankara those who make the most noise are those who appear the least interested in an end to the Turkish military occupation and the opening of channels between the two communities on the island. Their pessimism is valuable, both as a warning against careless decisions and as an illustration of what happens when roads are not taken, opportunities rejected, hopes abandoned. Annan’s plan shows a difficult road ahead. Our leaders’ eyes are fixed on maps. We’ve all said enough. Let us be silent as we wait.

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