The Delimitation of the Maritime Zones between Greece and Turkey


By Vasilios Moutsoglou, Ambassador ad h.  Author, Member of IHA 

Turkey has been raising claims on the Aegean since the 1970s. The political map of the Aegean region is drawn by the Lausanne Treaty (1923). The sovereignty of Greece over the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean, other than the islands of Imbros, Tenedos, and Lagonisi Islands, is confirmed in accordance with article 12 of the Treaty. Also, the islands situated at less than three miles from the Asiatic coast remained under Turkish sovereignty. The Dodecanese Islands belonged to Italy and were later annexed to Greece by the Treaty of Paris (1947). Thus, the borders of Greece in the Aegean were set at a distance of 3 nautical miles from the coast of Turkey. The whole of Anatolia, from where all Greeks were driven out, became Turkish; the geographical area west of this border was left to Greece. From this point of view, it is not that the Greek islands are near the Turkish coast, but that the Turkish coast is near the Greek islands.

​​In 1961 Greece began granting exploration permits on the Greek continental shelf without any reaction from Turkey. The crisis in the Aegean commenced on November 1, 1973, with the publication of a map in the official gazette of the Turkish government showing sections of the Northeast Aegean continental shelf offered to the Turkish Oil Company for exploitation. The Turkish government did not take into account the fact that the Aegean continental shelf was not delimited, nor that the islands, according to the 1958 Geneva Convention, had rights to the continental shelf. The crisis, which was approaching the threshold of heated conflict, was settled by the United Nations Security Council Resolution of August 25, 1976, which called on the two countries to reduce tensions and facilitate negotiations regarding the continental shelf. 

Following this crisis, the two sides agreed on a procedural protocol, the Berne Minutes of November 11, 1976. Pursuant to Article 6 of the Protocol, the two parties undertook to refrain from any initiative or act relating to the Aegean continental shelf that might interfere with the negotiations. In this way, Greece was deprived of the right to conduct exploration in the Aegean,even near its shores. Although Greece later declared the Protocol inactive, it was clear that any action in the Aegean would provoke a conflict, as it risked in March 1987. The Prime Minister of Greece, by his letter of April 8, 1987, agreed to the Turkish proposal that both nations limit their research within their territorial waters. Since then and considering that the Protocol serves its interests, Turkey has not practically challenged the Continental Shelf ruling in the Aegean but has done so instead in the Mediterranean.

​​The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concluded on December 10, 1982, came into force in 1994, a year after the 60th nation ratified the Treaty.Due to the fact that almost all of the U.N. nations ratified the Convention that has been implemented over an extended period of time, it is actually considered Customary Law. Therefore, the fact that Turkey has not signed it does not release it from the obligation to respect it.

Territorial sea, as defined by the UNCLOS, is a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles from a coastal state. On October 24, 1979, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that the extension by Greece of its territorial sea from 6 nautical miles to 12 miles would be considered a cause of war, although this is an internationally recognized right.  The Turkish National Assembly, declared on June 8, 1995, casus belli the possible extension of Greek territorial waters. Turkey, during the UNCLOS debate in Montego Bay, Jamaica, strongly objected to the 12 miles range, but its arguments were not accepted. Greece considers the extension of its territorial sea to be an unnegotiable sovereign right.

​​Within the territorial sea, the coastal state exercises sovereignty, although foreign ships (military and civilian) are allowed innocent passage through it.  An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends from the baseline to a maximum of 200 nautical miles. A coastal nation has control of all economic resources within its exclusive economic zone, including fishing, mining, oil exploration, and any pollution of those resources. In contrast to the Continental Shelf, where the right of states exists ab initio and ipso facto (from inception), the EEZ requires a declaration, an action which Greece did not proceed on. Land-locked (art. 69) or geographically disadvantaged States (art 70) have the right to participate, on an equitable basis, in the exploitation of an appropriate part of the surplus of the living resources of the exclusive economic zones of coastal States of the same subregion or region. 

Following Article 121 of UNCLOS, islands that can sustain life have the same rights on the Continental Shelf – Exclusive Economic Zone as the mainland coasts. The UNCLOS Convention does not provide for degrees of influence, i.e., the islands either have or do not have a continental shelf and an EEZ, depending on whether or not they can sustain life (sustain human habitation or economic life of their own). This is the only criterion regardless of the size of the islands.

Nevertheless, according to UNCLOS, the exploitation of the resources of the Continental Shelf presupposes its delimitation, either unilaterally by the state in case of the open sea or by agreement between States with opposite (in case the two coasts are situated across from each other at a distance of fewer than 400 miles) or adjacent coasts.  This agreement constitutes international law, which, however, binds only the contracting parties (Convention on the Law of Treaties, Article 34) and those third countries that agree in writing that they are bound from it (Article 35).

In case the two states cannot agree with each other, they can refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice. There is no possibility of a unilateral appeal by Greece as Turkey has not agreed to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. In these cases, a bilateral consultation is conducted, an understanding is reached, and a joint statement is drawn up to refer the matter to the Court. According to Article 38.2 of UNCLOS, the Court may “adjudicate a case ex aequo et bono (equity) if the parties agree to it.” If there is an agreement of the parties in the arbitration agreement, the Court can decide on the reduced influence of the islands.

Therefore, concerning Turkey, a possible referral of the issue to the International Court of Justice (The Ηague), may imply the acceptance of the equity clause, which is a sine qua non (essential) condition for Turkey, but perhaps detrimental to Greece. This issue had hampered an earlier attempt to appeal to the International Court of Justice in 1974. If the appeal to the International Court of Justice is accepted, the two countries, in drafting the joint statement, would have to find ways to avoid a situation where Turkey would not agree to go to Court without the equity clause, and Greece would disagree with that.

Finally, since the Aegean could be classified as a semi-closed sea within the meaning of Article 122 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the bordering countriesshould cooperate in the exercise of their rights under this Convention, pursuant to Article 123 of the same Convention. Therefore, all parties should realize that the only legal and,consequently, a viable solution is the peaceful demarcation of the Continental Shelf, either through negotiations or through the International Court of Justice.

In claiming that the Aegean islands do not have their own continental shelf, Turkey aims at surrounding the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean within the Anatolian continental shelf (Blue Homeland doctrine) with the ultimate goal of creating a special status. It has relevant “experience” since it managed to shake off the special status that had been provided for Imbros and Tenedos, expelling the exclusively Greek population of these islands by oppressive measures and Turkifying them. Turkey is not a state of the rule of law,but force.  It respects only power; if it did not know that Greece would oppose its military, there should be no doubt that Turkey would move forward vigorously in its plans. And its plans envisage expansion to the west. The difficulties in its economy are not an obstacle but are, instead, considered temporary, while the profits stemming from territorial expansion and domination are permanent.

Greece does not deny the existence of Turkish rights over the seas that surround it – but only to what Turkey is entitled to. However, Greece will not give in to its rights based on Turkey’s claim of military superiority. Greece’s resolute stance and respect for international law, together with the moral support of its allies, is the only deterrent to a revisionist Turkey.

The articles published on the IHA website express exclusively the authors – members of the IHA. The IHA website does not censor, nor does it intervene in articles – texts of IHA members.

Source: International Hellenic Association

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