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.

The success or failure of this post-colonial settlement had immense implications. In Cypriot towns and villages, the Orthodox church and the mosque can often be found within a minute's walk of one another. History shows virtually no example of fratricide between Cypriot Greeks and Cypriot Turks when left to themselves. If Muslims and Christians--who shared the lingua franca of English--could make a go of coexistence, then a promising example might be set for the immediate neighbors in the Levant. Partly for related reasons, Tito's multiethnic Yugoslavia also attached especial importance to relations with Cyprus.

The Cypriot microcosm did not last nearly as long as Tito's slightly artificial "brotherhood and unity," but this was largely because of the intervention of outside powers. Both Greece and Turkey sponsored extreme irredentist proxies in Cyprus with the help of the CIA, which preferred the ethnic fascists to the island's large Communist and Socialist parties. When this led to intercommunal fighting in 1963-64, President Makarios invited U.N. peacekeepers to prevent further violence, and U.N.FICYP is now one of the oldest U.N. contingents in being.

The relief, though, was purchased at a very high price: The lines drawn by U.N. local commanders became the sketch of a future partition that would reward, not punish, the ethnic extremists.

In the beginning, there were two sets of negotiations. The Greek and Turkish Cypriots elected communal leaders to negotiate local differences, while the recognized Republic of Cyprus dealt at the state level with disagreements among Greece, Turkey, and Great Britain, which retained bases on the island and the status of a "guarantor power" of Cypriot independence.

Over time, however, this essential distinction became blurred. And after 1974, it was abolished. In the summer of that year, after the ruling Greek junta in Athens had mounted a military coup against President Makarios, Turkey seized the opportunity to invade Cyprus. It might be argued that the first of these interventions had some legal justification, as a riposte to a fascist putsch; but in a brutal succeeding invasion the Turkish army grabbed the whole northern third of the island, expelled almost 200,000 Greeks from their homes, set up a "Turkish State of Northern Cyprus," and drew a walled line of partition right through the capital city of Nicosia.

This was the first time since 1945 that any border in Europe had been changed by unilateral force. Mainland Greek and Turkish forces fired on one another: the only time that two NATO members had ever done so. A member of the U.N., a candidate member of the European Union, a member of the British Commonwealth, had been violently dismembered. Injury was added by the importation of mainland settlers from Anatolia, aimed at altering the demographic balance of the island.

Faced with such a gross violation of all international laws, the United Nations had no choice but to pass a series of unambiguous and near-unanimous resolutions calling on Turkey to withdraw its forces. But on the ground, in a prefiguration of what was later to happen in Bosnia, the U.N. soldiers defended only themselves. And in subsequent negotiations, the U.N. bureaucracy treated the invader and the victim as morally equivalent.

Actually, the U.N. did worse than that. It did not insist on direct negotiations between the member states, since Turkey simply refuses to recognize the lawful Republic of Cyprus. Instead, it exceeded its mandate and asked the Cyprus government to treat with the proxies whom Turkey had installed as a local regime. Thus, the intercommunal and international strands became hopelessly entangled. Turkey, the real power and negotiator, could always pretend that it did not control its surrogates in Cyprus, and these surrogates could always pretend that their hands were tied by Turkey.

Rather as in today's Darfur, where the janjaweed are treated as if they are not Sudanese government mercenaries, the time wasted on the charade can be gainfully employed in completing the ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, the jagged line of partition--the problem in the first place--began to look more permanent as it was garrisoned and, in effect, enforced by men in blue helmets.

Claire Palley, a renowned Anglo-South African expert in constitutional law, takes up this dismal story at the point where Kofi Annan decided to involve himself personally. Winston Churchill once said of some luckless opponent that he had "sat on the fence so long that the iron had entered into his soul." Kofi Annan's genius for compromise and for splitting differences without regard to principle is of the same order. An extraordinary opportunity presented itself in 2003 when, against all expectations, the Turkish Cypriots--the supposed beneficiaries of partition--rebelled politically against their imposed leadership and demanded to be part of the wider Cypriot accession to the European Union. The Turkish authorities were obliged to open the sealed checkpoints at the border and to permit visits and exchanges to take place from either side.

In this moment of "people power," it took a sort of anti-talent for the secretary general to find the most obstinate demands of the discredited Turkish leadership and to instate them as part of his "plan." Entirely heedless of the repeated U.N. resolutions demanding the demilitarization of the island, he postponed the date of eventual Turkish withdrawal until the remote future, and thus evolved a deal that was just out of the reach of the Greek Cypriot electorate. In a referendum on the proposal last year, the Turkish Cypriots voted "yes" for federal reunification and the Greek Cypriots voted "no."

To have produced this result is to have negated years of patient confidence-building between two estranged, but not divorced, peoples. It has meant that Cyprus joins the EU with its Turkish population still left out, which greatly complicates the wider question of Turkish membership and postpones a resolution until the next generation.

This small but suggestive fiasco will stand, along with others more notorious, as a memorial to Annan's dead-hand effect on international relations.

Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger, is most recently the author of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

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