UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' report on the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, released on Wednesday night as an official document of the Security Council, number S/2023/3, records the lack of common ground between the two sides for peace talks leading to a mutually agreeable solution.
In the report, the UN Secretary-General proposes that the Security Council extends the mandate of the mission for six months, until July 31, 2023.
“While there was some hope at the beginning of the current reporting period that the two sides would redouble their efforts to achieve cooperation on potential bicommunal projects, and in so doing build more goodwill and trust, paving the way for more such projects and, eventually, for a new round of settlement talks, those hopes were dashed within a few months. A surge in hard-line rhetoric on both sides has led to increased rigidity while the prospects for a mutually-agreeable settlement continue to fade” says the UN Secretary General in the report, while urging the two sides to encourage more direct contacts and cooperation between the two communities and to provide concrete support to the initiatives, as requested by the Security Council.
The General Secretary says that the island is facing a real crisis given the number of asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants compared to the size of the island's population. However, the lack of access to asylum procedures in accordance with international law continues to exacerbate the problem and is of grave concern to the United Nations.
Furthermore, he calls on both sides to cooperate and mobilize their efforts to address the source of the problem to discuss the issue of irregular migration through meetings facilitated by United Nations field missions and with technical expertise from his representative Office of the United Nations.
According to the report, the political climate between the two sides was marked by a significant hardening of positions and increase in unhelpful rhetoric, against the backdrop of election campaigning and a decrease in public confidence in the possibility of the sides finding common ground on a way forward regarding the settlement talks.
Internally, each community tended to focus its attention on domestic political developments and socioeconomic issues, it is noted.
The report notes that there were two significant developments from a political perspective, first, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership condemned the announcement on 16 September by the United States that it had lifted the Defense Trade Restrictions on the Republic of Cyprus for Fiscal Year 2023, and reacted by vowing to strengthen their military presence in the north of the island. Following the announcement by the Republic of Cyprus of a significant increase in its military budget, the Turkish Cypriot leadership stated that the armament activities of the Greek Cypriot side would not remain unreciprocated, it is added.
In the second point mentioned in the report, it is noted that on 19 September, a Turkish Cypriot delegation presented to the Secretariat a draft framework document supposed to formalize the relationship between UNFICYP and the Turkish Cypriot authorities.
Earlier in the reporting period, the Special Representative/Deputy Special Adviser had achieved consensus with the representatives of the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot leaders on an ambitious agenda to move forward with a number of projects to address issues of mutual concern and build trust towards improved conditions for future settlement talks, it is added.
In their regular weekly meetings, it says, they strived to continue insulating the work of the technical committees from the broader political and security dynamics concerning the Cyprus problem. As a result of those efforts, they achieved some progress, with new agreements in the areas of environment, culture, economic and trade matters, cultural heritage and several other issues. In the second part of the reporting period, however, the difficult political environment began to impact cooperation and creating setbacks to the activities of certain technical committees, the report notes.
Moreover, it is noted that the work of the peacekeeping mission continues to be impacted by the lack of common ground between the parties vis-a-vis peace talks and the absence of prospects for a mutually agreeable solution. "The mistrust between the political leadership of the two sides often led to the rapid political escalation of localized low- level incidents, which in turn, amplified by partial popular media outlets, further increased the divisive rhetoric. As a result, the mission and its leadership were often caught between opposing narratives and a lack of political will to prevent such escalation" it is added.
Moreover, it is noted that the authority of UNFICYP, mandated by the Security Council, continued to be challenged, both as to the location of the United Nations ceasefire lines as well as regarding the role of the mission.
Furthermore, it is noted that the deep economic crisis in the "north", as the Turkish-occupied areas are called in the report, resulted in many migrants becoming increasingly vulnerable to being used for criminal activities. The movement of migrants "both north and south of the island" created tensions between the sides, and continued to trigger unconcerted reactions that, in fine, did not address the problem and created new ones by altering the status quo of the buffer zone, it is added.
UNFICYP remains particularly concerned by unauthorized construction in the buffer zone, as these affect the status quo by de facto taking over areas that were meant to remain a security buffer between the opposing forces.
In addition, it is noted that a new 300-person- strong official law and order force was being established by the Republic of Cyprus to patrol along that fence in order to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from crossing to the "south", as the free areas of the Republic of Cyprus are called, adding that "such patrolling inside the buffer zone would be considered a significant violation."
Along the northern ceasefire line, the construction of trenches and the laying of other barriers within the buffer zone appear aimed at unilaterally altering the boundaries of the buffer zone in a few localized areas, the report says.
In relation to Varosha, the report says that no steps were taken to address the call made by the Security Council in its resolution 2646 (2022) to immediately reverse the actions taken since October 2020. UNFICYP did not observe any significant change in the 3.5 percent of Varosha where it was announced in July 2021 that the military status had been lifted in preparation for renovation, it is added, notingm however, that the mission has limited access to that area. However, the mission has limited access to that area.
At another point, the report says that the mission observed that the Greek Cypriot National Guard added 65 new unauthorized prefabricated concrete firing positions along their ceasefire line bringing the total since 2019 to approximately 290, while along the northern ceasefire line 8 new prefabricated concrete firing positions were added.
"These constructions are all unauthorized and illustrate the risk of tit-for-tat escalation that each individual violation may provoke. UNFICYP continuously protests the ongoing militarization of the ceasefire lines, which, along with the deployment of the fence, reinforce the perception of a 'hard border'” it is added.
It is also noted that no progress was made during the reporting period regarding the clearing of the 29 remaining suspected hazardous areas on the island, including the three active National Guard minefields in the south and the Turkish Forces’ legacy minefield in the east.
The report says that Special Representative Colin Stewart continued to engage on a weekly basis with representatives of the two Cypriot leaders. "Such meetings have proved critical in allowing a direct political engagement between the sides in the absence of negotiations, in addressing issues on the ground, and in discussing important projects involving both sides. Early in the reporting period an agenda to develop and implement bicommunal projects was agreed, but by late October increased political constraints from each side had significantly slowed cooperation" it is added.
Moreover, the report says that access to religious sites on the other side of the buffer zone increased during this reporting period, however, some tensions emerged on a few occasions when some Greek Cypriot priests attempted to organize services in the north and were stopped from doing so by the Turkish Cypriot authorities.
The UN report also notes that some 61,921 Ukrainian nationals arrived in Cyprus between 24 February and 30 October 2022, of whom 17,888 submitted applications for Temporary Protection with some 14,523 remaining in Cyprus at the end of October 2022.
The steep increase in the number of asylum applications continued in the second part of the year with the number of asylum applications submitted by the end of September 2022 in the Republic of Cyprus reaching 16,705, representing a 93% increase compared to the same period last year and exceeding by 26% the total number of asylum applications submitted in the whole of 2021.
The lack of access to the asylum procedures at the crossing points of the Green Line persisted, leading to an increase in irregular crossings and rendering asylum seekers at risk of exploitation, it is added.