How to Reinvigorate the UN’s Mediation Efforts in Cyprus
How to Reinvigorate the UN’s Mediation Efforts in Cyprus
A silhouette of a man is seen in front of a UN outpost in front of Pahos Gate, near the ceasefire line or ''Green Line'' that divides the city, Nicosia, Cyprus, on Feb. 24, 2023. Kostas Pikoulas / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 10 minutes

How to Reinvigorate the UN’s Mediation Efforts in Cyprus

UN diplomacy aimed at reunifying Cyprus has been drifting since talks broke down in 2017. The Secretary-General should appoint an envoy to draft a roadmap with sufficient incentives to bring both Greek and Turkish Cypriots back to the table.

The UN has played a mediating role in Cyprus since the 1960s. After Türkiye intervened in the island’s civil conflict in 1974, leaving Cyprus split de facto between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south, the UN’s ultimate goal has been reunification. But its efforts have drifted since the breakdown of talks between the two sides in Switzerland in 2017. The post for the senior UN official in reunification talks has been empty for almost two years. In that time, relations between the two communities have worsened, as Crisis Group detailed in an April report. The Greek Cypriot government, which enjoys UN recognition as the Republic of Cyprus, continues to impose restrictions to isolate the Turkish Cypriots – whose leaders have, on the other hand, grown more sceptical of reunification. Without a renewed push to hammer out a settlement, each of the two sides’ positions is liable to harden. It is difficult to see how the UN can help bring the parties back to negotiations if it does not appoint a new envoy for Cyprus.

In some respects, the time seems ripe for a new envoy. The Greek Cypriot side has expressed strong support for such an appointment, and the Turkish Cypriot leadership, at least in principle, is open to the idea as well. Secretary-General António Guterres has consulted with both sides on the issue repeatedly since 2021, and the Security Council gave unanimous support to the proposal on 12 July.

Three main obstacles, however, are stymying the Secretary-General’s efforts. One is substantive, relating to terms of reference for the position: Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders cannot agree whether the appointee should stick to diplomacy on existing formulas for reunification endorsed by the Security Council, or whether they could promote alternative solutions, such as an arrangement that formalises Turkish Cypriot sovereignty. The second problem concerns what the appointee’s job title should be, as both sides believe the nomenclature could circumscribe what the individual could do in future talks. A third, more fundamental, issue is that neither party believes that the other will necessarily negotiate in good faith even if an envoy is chosen.

Guterres has refused to consider selecting an envoy unless the Greek and Turkish Cypriots can resolve the questions of terms of reference and job title. This lack of resolution is a recipe for deadlock as relations in Cyprus keep deteriorating.

A Role in Flux

The UN’s diplomatic approach to Cyprus continues to evolve. Espen Barth Eide, a Norwegian politician, acted as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the issue from 2014 to 2017, standing down after that year’s talks ended without agreement. Jane Holl Lute (a U.S. national) took over the file but relinquished it in October 2021, after an ethics panel warned that her seat on Shell’s board of directors posed a conflict of interest, given that the energy company is invested in gas fields in Cypriot waters. Lute’s departure did not leave the UN presence in Cyprus leaderless, however. Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Colin Stewart is overseeing the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, or UNFICYP, and is, for the time being, in charge of UN engagement with the two sides. Still, launching full-scale reunification talks necessitates the appointment of a more senior envoy.

Secretary-General Guterres ... has been exploring options for appointing such a higher-level mediator since 2021.

Secretary-General Guterres, who invested political capital in trying to coax the 2017 talks toward a positive outcome, has been exploring options for appointing such a higher-level mediator since 2021. In that year, he convened informal talks in Geneva with the “5+1” group (involving the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Greece, Türkiye and the United Kingdom) for the first time in four years. There, he discussed the possible terms of reference for a new envoy, which could include the development of a roadmap that would lead to formal negotiations. The parties were unable to agree on terms at that meeting, but in September 2021 Guterres hosted the Greek and Turkish presidents for a lunch on the margins of the UN General Assembly, even dispensing with note takers. It did not work, however: both sides emerged from the lunch claiming that Guterres agreed with their divergent positions, explained below, on an envoy’s role.

Since this breakdown, Guterres has made no further progress. In July, the Security Council encouraged him to appoint someone “as soon as possible”. Nonetheless, he has indicated that he cannot do so until the two sides come to a consensus on what this position would entail.

Sticking Points

The primary source of division between the two sides concerns the terms of reference that will define the envoy’s role. The Republic of Cyprus has been more vocal in calling for a new envoy, but insists – as it did previously – that the appointee should explicitly work toward bringing the two parts of the island back into a single, albeit loose, state through a “bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality” in line with Security Council resolutions. This vision was first outlined by the two parties in UN-led talks in the late 1970s, and the Security Council refers to the concept frequently. By contrast, the current Turkish Cypriot leadership, elected in 2020, argues that negotiations should move toward a “solution based on two states cooperating with each other” and that any new envoy should have leeway to search for solutions other than the bizonal, bicommunal federation model.

The differences over the role of and goals for a new UN envoy underpin a second, more formalistic debate over the proposed senior official’s job title. Both sides agree that while most recent lead UN mediators were designated as “Senior Adviser” to the Secretary-General, that title has passed its sell-by date, given its association with previous failed reunification efforts. Most interested parties would like the new appointee to be known as an “envoy”. But exactly what sort of envoy remains a source of dissension. The Greek Cypriot leadership seems to be pushing for the appointee to be called a “Special Envoy of the Secretary-General”. By contrast, the Turkish Cypriot side appears to prefer “Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General”.

The significance of this apparently minor difference in wording relates to the envoy’s freedom of manoeuvre. Both sides believe that a “Special Envoy” would be bound by past Council resolutions on Cyprus and so be tied to achieving a bizonal, bicommunal federation. For the Greek Cypriot leadership, this is desirable, but the Turkish Cypriot side perceives it to impose constraints that take their preferred outcome off the table. The Turkish Cypriots hope that a “Personal Envoy” of Guterres would not be similarly constrained and would have greater latitude to propose alternative ways forward, such as exploring models that elevate the status of Turkish Cypriots and grant them sovereign equality and equal international status.

No senior official answering to Guterres on Cyprus ... would be able to disregard the weight of past Council resolutions on reunification.

This exercise in semantics may be less important than the two sides believe. Senior UN officials are known by all sorts of titles, and there is no hard-and-fast linkage between a particular title and the solutions they can propose. In all cases, irrespective of whether or not the Security Council has passed a resolution or mandate, the Secretary-General remains bound to the Security Council on matters of peace and security. No senior official answering to Guterres on Cyprus – regardless of his or her title – would be able to disregard the weight of past Council resolutions on reunification.

Underlying some of these linguistic concerns is a third issue – the lack of trust between the two sides. The Greek Cypriots argue that it is necessary to get negotiations going again sooner rather than later because, as one official told Crisis Group, “the passage of time makes it harder” to find agreement. By contrast, the Turkish Cypriots, and their patrons in Ankara, suspect that without a significant change to the process, renewed talks would not lead to a different outcome. Therefore, they are hesitant to re-engage in a process that they believe will likely result only in their calls for sovereign equality and equal international status being ignored again.

Nonetheless, both sides have reasons to make concessions regarding the appointment of an envoy and to return to the table. For the Greek Cypriots, who worry about Ankara’s growing influence in the north and its impact on prospects for a settlement, getting back to talks sooner rather than later would have important benefits. For the Turkish Cypriots, UN-led talks are the one prominent multilateral venue where they are treated on an equal footing with the Republic of Cyprus, which gives them a powerful incentive to work with the Secretary-General.

An EU Role?

The debate is further complicated by the fact that Greek Cypriot leaders, including President Nikos Christodoulides, have expressed enthusiasm for the European Union (EU) to appoint an envoy of its own for Cyprus. But despite Christodoulides’ endorsement of the idea, officials in Brussels, New York, North Nicosia and Ankara have told Crisis Group that an EU envoy is not a feasible idea for now. The Turkish Cypriots and Türkiye are very unlikely to accept an EU representative as an impartial mediator given that both Greece and the Republic of Cyprus are EU members. Some also worry that parallel appointments of EU and UN diplomats would make for a crowded playing field and could lead to power struggles between the two. For its part, the EU, while not directly addressing the proposal to appoint an envoy, has offered to “play an active role” in supporting the UN-led processes, most recently in a 30 June EU Council meeting.

Nonetheless, the EU still has an important role to play. For one, it can provide technical support to the process. In the past round of negotiations, the EU named a “Personal Representative of the President of the Commission to the UN Good Offices mission”. Following on this precedent, the EU could consider appointing a lower-level technocrat to offer guidance on the EU acquis, or the body of rights and obligations that make up EU law, with which any agreement reached must align, given that the Republic of Cyprus is an EU member state.

The Key Parameters

The current light-touch model for UN engagement in Cyprus is not leading the conflict toward resolution. To break the deadlock, the Secretary-General should aim to appoint a new envoy for Cyprus to develop a roadmap to talks, with incentives that will attract both sides back to the table. To achieve this goal, Guterres will have to factor in potential appointees’ background and nationality, resolve the distraction of the job title, and outline terms of reference that all parties can live with.

In the identification of an envoy, there are a number of parameters that should be met. First, the envoy must be a senior official – probably a figure with ministerial experience and a sufficiently high profile to be able to engage directly with political leaders in Ankara and Athens, with whom SRSG Stewart has limited influence.

Political factors such as nationality must be taken into account.

Secondly, political factors such as nationality must be taken into account. For example, it is very unlikely that Türkiye would accept anyone from the EU, as the Republic of Cyprus and Greece are EU member states. There is merit to advocating for someone from a non-EU European country – like Switzerland or Norway – who would have strong channels to the EU while nevertheless remaining outside it. Alternatively, it might be easier to reach consensus on an envoy from a neutral country in Latin America or Africa that has sufficiently good relations with all relevant parties.

Thirdly, the Secretary-General will need to find a way to cut through the issue of what the envoy’s title should be. The easiest answer, which appears to have traction, might be to dispense with adjectives and just call the appointee an “envoy”. Failing that, it might be possible for Guterres to reassure the Republic of Cyprus that giving an individual the title of “personal envoy” will not have a material impact on his or her role. The Secretary-General also could come up with an alternative title altogether. The very first senior UN official in Cyprus in the 1960s, Ecuador’s Galo Plaza, was simply called the “UN mediator”. Perhaps something similar would be helpful at present.

Regardless of job title, the envoy’s goal is to facilitate a return to formal negotiations. Secretary-General Guterres could ask his appointee to explore the conditions for negotiations with all sides, in the hope that a new, more senior envoy can find openings for innovation that have not yet emerged. Additionally, the new envoy could try to build upon the Security Council’s unanimity on this issue to advocate for a new round of talks and encourage major regional and international players to help break the deadlock.

Finally, if agreement on an envoy with this mandate proves elusive for the time being, Guterres should not give up. He should instead encourage the parties to pursue confidence-building measures, in hopes of opening up space for an appointment down the road. Despite the deeply entrenched positions on both sides, there is utility in pursuing the appointment of a well-respected official who can try to build a framework for returning to formal talks.


Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
Project Director, Türkiye

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