Talk with Elizabeth Spehar : United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus

by Joy Hellers

On October 10th, the International Institute for Peace (IIP) held a public talk with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in Cyprus, Elizabeth Spehar, concerning the challenges and achievements of peacekeeping missions. During a brief introduction the IIP´s vice president, Angela Kane, highlighted the importance of peacekeeping missions as one of the most important tools of the UN in order to provide peace and security. Elizabeth Spehar is an experienced senior official of the UN and worked for several years in the UN´s department of political affairs. Since March 2016 she has served the Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Ms. Spehar gave a historical overview of peacekeeping missions, in order to present the existing challenges and the new initiative ,,Action for Peacekeeping” (A4P) in the course of the talk.


Elizabeth Spehar highlighted that the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations are almost as old as the UN itself. Accordingly, the first peacekeeping mission was implemented in 1948, sending a small team of observers to the Middle East during the First Arab-Israeli War. Especially after the Cold War, the number of peace operations and peacekeepers all over the world increased. Not only the number of operations and resources accumulated and changed, but also the complexity and the nature of the conflicts themselves grew and altered. At the beginning conflicts took place between states. Now the disputes take place within states, between numerous actors with different aims, ideologies, etc. Due to these changes the possible course of action of the UN changed and new, more complex operations are needed. Currently, there are 14 UN peacekeeping missions on the ground and even though the number of operations decreased, the role and the importance of the missions grew.

On account of the changed crisis, the peacekeeping missions face different challenges. Spehar highlights that the changing nature of the conflicts complicates the response possibilities and therefore the operations have to find new ways of problem solving. Furthermore, there is an increased number of missions operating in places with a high number of civilians. In these regions peacekeeping missions must guarantee the safety of the civilian population and the protection of the human rights. Another challenge is the rise in incidents of peacekeepers being targeted in some regions. Even though the peacekeepers appear as impartial force on the ground, they are still perceived as a threat by certain groups and are therefore more likely to be attacked. According to Spehar the Security Council decides sometimes on peacekeeping missions with unrealistic goals due to the political situation, the insufficient resources and capabilities. Another huge challenge for different peacekeeping operations is the lack of will of many conflicting parties and therefore many missions have difficulties achieving political solutions, solving long-lasting conflicts and accomplishing a sustainable peace. The last important challenge mentioned by Spehar, is to guarantee the proper conduct and discipline of the peacekeepers that live up the standards of the United Nations.

Even though the peacekeeping missions have to deal with different challenges and problems, a new initiative called ,,Action for Peacekeeping” (A4P), was launched in March 2019. The main idea is to improve peacekeeping collectively, by a shared commitment of long-lasting peace between the mission on the ground, the member states, etc. On this platform common responsibilities, as for example the protection of civilians, should be highlighted. This improved partnership between different actors mainly covers the idea of sustaining peace, the conduct and discipline of peacekeepers and the development of lasting political solutions.


The peacekeeping mission in Cyprus was deployed in 1964 in order to soothe the erupted violence between the two dominant communities, namely the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots. These disputes between the two communities started in the late 1950s and escalated after the independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. The original mission was supposed to remain on the island only for three months. However, it has been extended and is still present in Cyprus after 55 years. Especially after the Greek Cypriot coup d’état and the following Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the role of the UN peacekeeping mission increased. Its main objective in Cyprus, is to elaborate a long-lasting solution and guarantee the peace in the region. To achieve these goals the peacekeeping mission interferes notably in two ways. Firstly, the operation assures the stability in the buffer zone in order to create a proper atmosphere for possible communication and negotiations. Secondly, the mission supports Cypriots in their efforts for reconciliation and trust-building.

Spehar completed her presentation by pointing out some achievements of several UN peacekeeping missions. She highlighted for example the MINUSCA peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, where the groundwork was laid for a peace agreement, which was signed in February 2019. Moreover, the MONUSCO operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo provided support for the first democratic power transfer. Even though the nature of conflicts has changed and the missions have to face new challenges today, UN peacekeeping operations will continue making meaningful contribution to paving the way towards a long-lasting peace.

During the question and answer session Spehar mentioned several topics. She clarified the legal prosecution of misbehaving peacekeepers by underlining that the peacekeepers have certain immunities and privileges on the ground, but they still have to follow the local law. The prosecution itself depends on who the peacekeeper is. For example, if a soldier commits a crime, the case gets prosecuted by the country of origin of the individual soldier. By this statement Spehar highlighted again the challenge of ensuring the good conduct of the peacekeepers, because the prosecution in case of misbehavior is often outside the power of the UN. Furthermore, Spehar mentioned the divided Security Council and the many disagreements on several issues, which prevents the UN from taking action. As an answer to the question whether the UN provides a peacekeeping mission in Iran, Spehar emphasized the great number of quiet and preventive diplomacy offered by the UN. Another topic, was the budget of peacekeeping missions. Especially in Cyprus the financial resources have been reduced and therefore many aspects of the mandate cannot be fulfilled. A cutback of the budget always has serious consequences on the ground and a mission can only complete all its duties with the necessary resources. Spehar put a lot of value in showing how the role of women in peacekeeping missions has increased. To prove her statement, she gave an example of the Syrian file, where the last envoys actively engaged Syrian women in the process of peacekeeping. Towards the end of the discussion, skeptical voices came forward by questioning if the people of Cyprus actually want a unification. Spehar explains that many surveys show that the majority of Cypriots on both sides want unification, but only a small minority thinks it will actually happen. Between 2015 and 2017 negotiations among both communities took place, but neither a compromise nor a solution was found. At the end of this public talk, Spehar highlighted that even though the UN peacekeeping missions add a lot of input for problem solving and long-lasting peace, true peace depends on the will of the different parties.