The Magazine

Cyprus Betrayed

Another fine mess, courtesy of Kofi Annan's U.N.

Dec 5, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 12 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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An International Relations Debacle

The U.N. Secretary-General's Mission of Good Offices in Cyprus 1999-2004

by Claire Palley

Hart, 604 pp., $45

THE COLLAPSE OF THE MORAL authority of the United Nations is partly but not exclusively a matter of dating.

The U.N. did lend its flag and insignia to the Anglo-American effort to stop Kim Il Sung's invasion of South Korea, though this official baptism was partly due to the absence of the Soviet delegate, and of his veto, during the crucial vote. Conor Cruise O'Brien, a former Irish envoy to the organization (Ireland, like Spain, having been denied original membership on the grounds that it never declared war on the Axis or joined the original Anglo-American "coalition of the willing") felt that the whole ethos of the "world body" was undermined by its abject failure, during its own first military expedition in 1960, to uphold the new independence of the Congo. He later wrote, in one of the best memoirs of service at the U.N., that it partly redeemed itself by keeping the issue of apartheid alive during the years when South Africa was "represented" only by a racist dictatorship whose leadership had once been interned for pro-Nazi sympathies.

At different times, the U.N. has seated Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan as the representative of China, and Ukraine and Belorussia as if they were independent of the Soviet Union. It has made high moral pronouncements to the effect that the only racism in the Middle East is practiced by Jews. It failed the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechoslovaks in 1968 and the Tibetans throughout. It gave its top post to an Austrian who acquired his gaunt aspect in the Balkan killing fields of the Third Reich.

A conventional response to this dispiriting tale has been to say that the U.N. cannot be much better than the sum of its parts. This is no more than a tautology, though unlike most tautologies it is worth bearing in mind, since it contrasts with the almost fetishistic degree to which many of the same people believe that only the General Assembly or Security Council possesses the moral or legal authority to adjudicate or authorize a just war.

During the Cold War, the U.N. was indeed often paralyzed by "bloc" politics. Since then, however, there have been failures and disgraces that are attributable particularly to the weaknesses of the secretary general. Can one forget Boutros Boutros-Ghali dismissing accusations of the U.N.'s betrayal of Bosnia and sneering that people only minded about Bosnians because they were white? That would have been bad enough, if his deputy Kofi Annan had not almost simultaneously been ignoring the direct warnings from the U.N. commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, to the effect that more black Africans were about to be annihilated than anyone had ever seen killed in one week.

The case of Cyprus involves both the failure of the United Nations as an organization and the individual shortcomings of the present secretary general. There were two responsibilities inherited by the U.N. from the postwar League of Nations--the mandates in Palestine and South West Africa--and both of these led to statehood for Israel and, eventually, Namibia. The Republic of Cyprus, however, was a creation of the U.N. itself. A stupid colonial war, waged by the British between 1955 and 1960, essentially considered the island as British property in the same way as the other two European colonies, Ireland and Malta, had once been. The population of the island is roughly 82 percent Greek and 18 percent Turkish (with small but important Armenian and Maronite communities).

The historic Greek majority demanded enosis, or "union," with Greece proper, following the pattern of Crete and Rhodes. The Turkish minority echoed Ankara's demand that either the island be returned to Turkey, which had ceded it to Benjamin Disraeli during the Ottoman period as part of his triumphant campaign to secure the Suez Canal for Britain, or else partition it 50/50 between Turkey and Greece. This hopelessly zero-sum dilemma lost all of its charm for the British Tories after their evacuation of the Suez Canal in 1956. They were almost relieved when an Indian diplomat outpointed the Foreign Office by suggesting an independent Cyprus republic, shared between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and "guaranteed" against either enosis or taksim (the Turkish word for partition) by both Athens and Ankara.

After some fast footwork and the writing of a rather nerve-racking bi-communal constitution, the island became an independent state in 1960 under the presidency of the--for once one can use the word properly--charismatic Archbishop Makarios.