The United Nations Mine Action Centre in Cyprus (UNMACC) is to cease its landmine and ordinance clearance operations this month. Due to a lack of agreement between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot sides on releasing minefields outside the buffer zone, the UN de-mining team is denied access to the four remaining minefields, one laid by Turkish Forces in the south of Varosha and three by the Greek Cypriot National Guard in the Louroujina pocket. POST RI calls on two sides to change the mandate so as to authorise the UNMACC team to clear mines outside the buffer zone.
The minefields were laid within and outside of the Buffer Zone for defensive purposes during the conflict between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriots in 1974. Established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) upon the request of the Republic of Cyprus in 2003, the UNMACC was authorised to clear the minefields located in the buffer zone. The mine action has mainly funded by the European Commission along with the Cypriot Government, UK, Canada, Hungary and Slovenia. The mine action project is funded through the UNDP and implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) as part of the Partnership for the Future programme. UNMACC de-miners have removed and decommissioned more than 27,000 landmines (18,000 anti-personel, 9,000 anti-tank) since its launch in November 2004. This amounts to 74 minefields and over 9.7 million square kilometres of land throughout the buffer zone. Having cleared all the minefields released to UN Peacekeeping Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP), the de-mining teams have now run out of work and the operations have to come to an end.
De-mining processes primarily address humanitarian concerns over security of the civilians however, they also have a political aspect that fosters peace. Although some farmers have been cultivating land in proximity to minefields in Cyprus and thus they are considered to pose relatively little danger to civilians since they are designated as prohibited areas. Therefore, emphasis so far has been on the peace-building impact of the mine action. It was hoped that the de-mining would eliminate a physical barrier that divides the two sides and build confidence between the two communities supporting progress towards the future reunification of the island. Marking the ‘solid collaboration’ between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot Forces on the de-mining process, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Cyprus and Chief of UNFICYP, Lisa M. Buttenheim said “ridding the island of these deadly obstacles has enabled the two communities to move about more freely and has provided more opportunities for various contacts including trade and commerce”. Indeed, the UN de-mining activities permitted the opening of more crossing points such as Ledra Street/Lokmaci and Limnitis/Yesilirmak resulting in the increased mobility of people from both communities across the divide.
It is estimated that 15,000 mines covering two square kilometres still remain active in either side of the buffer zone. If the two sides fail to grant access to the de-mining team, they will leave Cyprus without achieving its mine-free status. This raises concerns over how unexpected hazardous events will be handled in the absence of the de-mining experts. Last year in December, three fire service trucks got stuck in a minefield, one of which triggered a mine. Busy fighting the fire in the dark, the five fire fighters did not notice they were entering into a hazardous mine zone. Their rescue was made possible by careful coordination between de-miners, Turkish forces and UNIFICYP.
Both Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus have moral and legal obligations to ensure the elimination of minefields in Cyprus. In signing the 1997 Ottawa Convention that bans anti-personnel landmines, both sides take the responsibility upon themselves to rid Cyprus of deadly mines. According to the UNFICYP Spokesman Rolando Gomez, the UN is waiting for the ‘green light’ from both sides to resume de-mining ‘anytime anywhere’.
As POST Research Institute we would like to express our aspirations for mine-free Cyprus that will in turn further peace-building, and urge both sides to negotiate to urgently resume working on the de-mining of Cyprus.