In this story series, UN Peacekeeping shows the impact of Action for Peacekeeping, which guides peace operations across 12 active missions.
By Maria Tsiarta and Mustafa Ongun - UNFICYP Associate Civil Affairs Officers
UNFICYP's Civil Affairs Section was established in 1998 to reflect the increasingly civilian nature of the issues confronting the Mission in Cyprus. With a military status quo, a longstanding ceasefire and the establishment of an UN-controlled buffer zone between the opposing forces, normal civilian activities resumed throughout the island and have been increasing in the buffer zone in recent years.
The Civil Affairs team works closely with organizations and groups across the divide to strengthen partnerships and to bring communities closer together. “Our island has been subjected to many historical changes over the centuries, but one aspect of it seems to remain unchanged: the intercommunal nature of it. Cyprus in its essence is an intercommunal island and it will be like that in the future. As a Turkish Cypriot, I can say that intercommunal work is important mainly for this reason: because it helps Cypriots feel at home with the essence of their country,” Mustafa Ongun, UNFICYP Associate Civil Affairs Officers says.
UNFICYP would facilitate civilian use of the buffer zone for peaceful purposes, such as agricultural work but over the years, as the Civil Affairs section grew, more intercommunal initiatives have been developed to help build confidence and trust between communities. From youth to women, and civil society actors from all communities, these activities help communities learn from each other and can sometimes be the only time they are engaging in joint programmes.
“It also allows us to learn what understanding, trust, cooperating and partnerships mean to them. This work fosters meaningful exchanges for a united Cyprus,” Ongun added.
Mustafa Ongun works with Maria Tsiarta and both are based in the eastern part of the island, but over the years, as their section has expanded, their presence has expanded to other sectors with activities happening across the island.
“Several aspects of this job are inspiring to me as a Greek Cypriot, but if I were to choose one, it would be to work with young people from “a bottom up” approach: supporting them to build good relations with the members of the other community, to observe youth changing their attitudes in a positive way and becoming active members of civil society that strives for peace,” Maria Tsiarta explained.
Their team is constantly seeking to establish new and meaningful partnerships. For example, they hold monthly networking forums, which give a chance for Cypriots to interact with other UN agencies, funds and programmes, with the diplomatic community and with local social enterprises and NGOs. Such initiatives provide opportunities to build new partnerships and to strengthen existing ones.
Another important aspect of their work is to help forge links between Cypriots and international and local NGO, but mostly to provide a safe space for Cypriots to meet in person and at times online as well. The pandemic did not slow down their work and UNFIYCP developed creative ways to maintain the momentum of partnerships they had successfully created.
“Our efforts are crucial because they help people living in Cyprus envision what a united Cyprus and society looks like and it contributes towards peace. We do this by partnering with others on issues that are important for them, to Cyprus, to the region, and to the world. And the pathway for that is by convening youth, women, and civil society, helping connect people and fostering partnerships around different thematic areas. In addition to supporting the work of NGOs using sports, and arts,” Tsiarta added.
In 2020, Civil Affairs established two thematic working groups to build cooperation on environmental issues, as well as on economy, business innovation, broadening the range of subjects around which people can partner.
“One of our biggest Civil Affairs’ achievements is the Youth Champions for Environment and Peace. This initiative started in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic and this year we are preparing to launch its fourth edition. So far, 80 young people have taken part in the programme, and it is inspiring to see how their fresh minds and ideas can thrive once there is a safe space for them to interact. At each edition we always learn that some of them are meeting members of the other community for the first time. This is what our work is all about: to bridge the gap and pave the way forward!” Maria concluded.
UN Peacekeeping puts partnerships at the heart of its work to achieve sustainable peace and is a key priority under the Action for Peacekeeping agenda and its implementation strategy A4P+. Civil Affairs Sections in peacekeeping missions are responsible for facilitating activities that promote harmony and conditions for future reconciliation. UNFICYP’s intercommunal activities range from supporting the preservation of common cultural heritage, promoting intercommunal dialogue through cultural, sports and other events, and through the facilitation of essential services for both communities.