Friday, May 20, 2016

How Much Role Can the UN Play in the Reconciliation of Conflicting Parties?

In supposedly war-torn Cyprus, the United Nations headquarters is aptly located in a bombed out hotel.  During the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Ledra Palace Hotel, one of the best in Cypriot capital of Nicosia, at the time, was on the receiving end of the constant barrages.  With the hotel situated directly on the UN-mandated "Green Line" that separated the city's northern Turkish districts from the southern Greek zones, the 1974 war saw it become the very frontlines of devastating military conflict that left millions internally displaced in its aftermath.

Today, more than a quarter of a century later, the hotel, on the outside, looks much like it did in 1974.  Hundreds of bullet holes decorate the outside concrete walls, and the big metal sign spelling out Ledra Palace is still slanted and half-falling, just like it was when a bomb strike nearby during the war and caused the sign to disorient itself.  Probably the only thing s that changed about the hotel is more rust on the metals, more moss on the concrete, and a massive UN barricade that separate it, and the remains of the Green Line buffer zone around it, from the vibrant city of Nicosia.

Vibrancy is indeed a fitting word to describe modern-day Nicosia, decades after the city was torn apart in armed conflict.  Still divided by a concrete wall and check points right down the middle, the city, on both the Turkish and Greek sides, nonetheless become something of a tourist magnet.  On the Greek side, the relaxing and clean main streets are lined with hip bars, cafes, and pubs, drawing young vacationers from around the country and beyond to sit, have a drink, and savor the big cosmopolitan feel of a small city.

On the Turkish side, commerce has taken over its half of the Old Town Nicosia, with markets selling everything from vegetables to carpets jostling for space with countless eateries offering superb donor plates on the cheap.  Simultaneously, the lively commercial culture of the streets have bred a new emerging group of crafts galleries, peddling innovative designs to artsy visitors.  With crowds constantly hopping over the checkpoint from the south side of the town, the Turkish districts have extricated images of poverty and isolation in the past.

To further promote their economies, both sides have taken tourism very seriously.  In the south, nationwide branches of Tourist Information Offices are opened to provide guidance to first time visitors, while in the north, signs explaining significance of landmarks have been erected all over.  Both sides have been keen to leverage relevant fluency of the general populace in conversational English and abundance of cultural material and architecture available to be turned into multiple museums on different topics.

Foreign policies have only strengthened the conviction for growth.  the south has been enthusiastically promoting investment residency schemes to bring greater investment into otherwise a farflung corner of the EU little known to non-European investors.  North and south have cooperated on promotion of common culinary legacies like Halloumi, and historical heritage like Ottoman and Crusader architectures.  The fact that people flow easily across the still-militarized Green Line show that reconciliation has come far since 1974.

What is funny, though, is the fact that the UN, the de facto administrator of the massive Green Line buffer zone, has not been an active participant of the economic growth plans pushed forth by both the north and the south.  While Nicosia revitalized the tourist industries by rebuilding and restoring Old Town heritage, the UN seemed to gladly stayed aside, outside the walled city in its isolated Ledra Palace compound.  Even funding Nicosia's revitalization has been spearheaded by EU, with little to no visible participation of UN agencies.

Perhaps the UN is deliberately ensuring that it stays out of Cyprus' business.  Maybe it wants the two sides to independently reconcile differences for the sack of the country's economic development.  By having the conditions for future integration organically created through cooperative efforts by both sides, the UN can be well-situated to take any credit for breakthrough in reunification talks.  Whether or not such line of logic of true, the Cyprus case shows that, with complete loss of touch with everyday realities on the ground, the UN has severely limited capabilities to initiate efforts for reconciliation in conflict zones like Nicosia.

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