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The Sovereign Base Areas: colonialism redivivus?1

  • Richard Clogg (a1)

In 1960, following a bitter struggle, the British colonial power, agreed to concede a (qualified) independence to Cyprus. As the price of such independence, however, the UK government insisted on retaining sovereignty in perpetuity over two sovereign base areas, Dhekelia and Akrotiri, the largest Royal Air Force base outside the United Kingdom. These bases cover three per cent of the land area of the island. Such retention of control over part of a former colonial territory is unique in the history of British decolonization and has manifest consequences for the people of Cyprus.

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This article is the revised text of a paper given at a conference on ‘The Republic of Cyprus: Past, Present, Future’, held at the University of Cyprus in December 2010 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Cypriot independence. It is dedicated to the memory of the conference organizer, Dr Rolandos Katsiaounis, a profound student of the history of Cyprus.

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2 See the photograph of this ceremony in The Cyprus Weekly for 3-9 December 2010.

3 After the British parliament voted in late September 2014 for air strikes aimed at Islamic State (ISIS, aka ISIL) targets in Iraq, a squadron of eight Tornado GR4s was flown to the Akrotiri base, whence they were to be deployed in Iraqi airspace. Whether or not the government of Cyprus approves of these missions it certainly lacks the ability to interdict them. The flying of such missions from Cypriot soil certainly lays Cyprus open to retaliatory measures. It should be noted in this respect that the coast of Syria is only 105 kilometres from the island. In connection with these British attacks on ISIS targets, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, flew out to the Akrotiri base to thank the aircrews concerned. See The Guardian, 2 and 3 October 2014.

4 N. Morley, ‘Top Tory gets Cyprus base review job’, Cyprus Mail, 25 May 2011. One might expect the Labour Party, the party traditionally associated with decolonization, to question the future of the bases. However Jim Murphy, at that time the shadow Defence Secretary, while criticizing the appointment of Lord Ashcroft, referred to the bases as ‘strategically important’. A request to the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of the Mercer/Ashcroft report was refused.

5 Higgins, R., The Development of International Law through the Political Organs of the United Nations (London 1963)34 , quoted by Woodliffe, J., The Peacetime Use of Foreign Military Installations under Modern International Law (Dordrecht 1992) 74 .

6 Woodliffe, , The Peacetime Use of Foreign Military Installations under Modern International Law (Dordrecht 1992) 74 .

7 Woodliffe, , The Peacetime Use of Foreign Military Instalhtions under Modern International Law (Dordrecht 1992) 144–5. Annex B, Part II, Section 4.2 of the Treaty of Establishment provides for ‘the right for UK military aircraft to fly in the airspace over the Republic of Cyprus without restriction other than to have due regard for the safety of other aircraft and the safety of life and property in Cyprus’ (cited ibid., 147).

8 A further anomaly in the situation of the SBAs is that, although they are under the control of the Ministry of Defence, the British Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the Sovereign Base Area Administration whereas it does apply to the Ministry of Defence. Further anomalies resulting from the existence of the sovereign base areas were revealed by the experiences of a group of Iraqi Kurdish refugees who came ashore in the Akrotiri SBA in 1998. Arguing that the group had arrived on what Britain deems to be sovereign territory, and that the UK government cannot pick and choose which aspects of sovereignty it chooses to enforce, the Cypriot authorities have declined to accept responsibility for the refugees and a number have been marooned on British territory for the past sixteen years (The Guardian, 22 October 2014).

9 Kyriakides, K., ‘The Sovereign Base Areas and British defence policy since 1960’, in Faustmann, H. and Peristianis, N. (ed.), Britain in Cyprus: Colonialism and Post-colonialism 1878-2006 (Mannheim and Möhnesee 2006) 515 .

10 Henry Kissinger likewise viewed Cyprus as valuable ‘real estate’ and stressed the importance of keeping it as a ‘British square in the chequer board’: Mallinson, W., Partition through Foreign Aggression: The Case of Turkey in Cyprus (Minneapolis 2010) 8 .

11 Ministry of Defence reply to Freedom of Information written request PW-27-10-2010-112415-002, 24 November 2010.

12 Radcliffe, a law lord, is principally known for his role in drawing the borders between India and Pakistan before the granting of independence.

13 Reddaway, J., Burdened with Cyprus: The British Connection (London 1987) 23 .

14 Highly useful for the study of the Sovereign Base Areas, however, are three articles by Klearchos Kyria-kides, ‘The Sovereign Base Areas and British defence policy since 1960’, 511-34; The island of Cyprus and the projection of sea power by the Royal Navy since 1878’, in Vassallo, C. and d’Angelo, M. (ed.), Anglo-Saxons in the Mediterranean: Commerce, Politics and Ideas (XVII-XX Centuries) (Msida [Malta] 2007) 219-36; and ‘The Republic of Cyprus, the United Kingdom and HM Forces: A special relationship?’, A working paper presented at the conference entitled ‘Cyprus - 50 Years of Independence: Achievements and Challenges’, London Metropolitan University, 30 June 2010.

15 Palley, C., An International Relations Debacle: The UN Secretary-General’s Mission of Good Offices in Cyprus 1999-2004 (Oxford 2005).

16 Hannay, D., Cyprus: The Search for a Solution (London 2005) 37 . The United Kingdom, of course, has its own intractable problem of ethno-religious conflict in Northern Ireland. Hannay, in his account of his years as British Special Representative for Cyprus’, dispenses judgements about leading personalities involved in attempts to resolve the conflict. One might wonder what would have been the reaction if a Cypriot analyst of the Northern Ireland conflict similarly dispensed comments on some of the protagonists.

17 Norton-Taylor, R. and Leigh, D., ‘UK demands over spy flights from British airbase rejected by Americans’, The Guardian, 3 December 2010 .

18 Kyriakides, ‘The Sovereign Base Areas and British defence policy since 1960’, 526, 529.

19 The nearest instance of a similar situation to the SBAs would appear to be the British Indian Ocean Territory, better known as the Chagos Islands. These were purchased in 1965 from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius by the United Kingdom (Mauritius became independent in 1968) and those living on the islands at the time, the Chagossians, were summarily evicted from the territory and have been campaigning to return ever since. Diego Garcia now houses an extensive joint military base of the United Kingdom and the United States. Another parallel is with the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, originally acquired by the US following the occupation of Cuba during the 1898 US-Spanish war. Ironically, this facility was acquired in part to enable the United States to underwrite the independence of Cuba, although the status of the base has been repeatedly challenged by Fidel Castro.

20 El Pats, 3 August 2004.

21 The Evening Standard on 24 September 2002 likewise claimed that Cyprus was in danger of attack within 45 minutes of an order by Saddam Hussein.

22 Gross, Andreas, rapporteur, Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, ‘Situation of the inhabitants of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia’, Document 11232 (2007) 67 .

23 It should be noted that the UK government’s non-negotiable insistence in 1960 on the permanent occupation of the SBAs occurred a mere two years after British troops stationed on the island had run amok following the murder of British army wife Catherine Cutliffe by EOKA in October 1958. This gave rise to ‘wholesale rape and looting and murder’. For examples of what British troops referred to as ‘Cyp-bashing’, see Vinen, R., National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963 (London 2014) 339-44. Ian Martin, an interpreter attached to the Special Branch of the Cyprus Police and later to the First Battalion, The Royal Ulster Rifles, has given a graphic account of the mayhem that followed the shooting by EOKA in the summer of 1958 in Famagusta of two members of The Royal Horse Guards in reprisal for the shooting of two villagers from Avgorou by members of the same regiment. He reported this in a letter to his parents, which he concluded by writing of Sir Hugh Foot, the Governor of the island ‘either he is unbelievably stupid, if all his underlings have managed to keep such things secret from him, or he is the biggest hypocrite ever, if he knows about it and at the same time harps on his liberalism and his wish for a just settlement’: Martin, I., ‘The “Cyprus troubles” 1955-1960’, Κάμπος. Cambridge Papers in Modern Greek 1 (1993) 76-8.

24 In July 2003, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, ‘Squaddies on the Rampage’, which alleged an endemic ‘drinking culture’ in the British army and in the Cyprus bases in particular. This prompted a number of complaints of bias to the regulator, the Independent Television Commission. These were not upheld. The ITC in its adjudication was critical of the Ministry of Defence. The MOD had initially expressed interest in taking part in the programme but in the end limited itself to a written statement. This declared that ‘all personnel received briefings about alcohol but that the regulation of the consumption of alcohol by personnel in their free time could raise issues of restricting a person’s rights’: Independent Television Commission Complaints Bulletin, no. 22, 8 September 2003.

25 The only attacks on the Akrotiri and Dhekelia bases involving weaponry (rocket launchers, mortars, assault rifles and hand grenades) occurred in August 1986, but the assailants were acting in apparent retaliation for the US bombing of Tripoli the previous April, and there was no Cypriot involvement: Dimitrakis, P., Military Intelligence in Cyprus from the Great War to Middle East Crises (London 2010) 170 .

26 The Guardian, 5 July 2001.

27 Kyriakides, ‘The Sovereign Base Areas and British defence policy since 1960’, 519-20.

28 Kyriakides, ‘The Republic of Cyprus, the United Kingdom and HM Forces’, 19.

1 This article is the revised text of a paper given at a conference on ‘The Republic of Cyprus: Past, Present, Future’, held at the University of Cyprus in December 2010 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Cypriot independence. It is dedicated to the memory of the conference organizer, Dr Rolandos Katsiaounis, a profound student of the history of Cyprus.

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Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies
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