A Resolution for International Disputes in Greco-Turkish Seas Commentary
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A Resolution for International Disputes in Greco-Turkish Seas

The recent controversy ignited by the exploratory drills conducted off the coast of Cyprus is just the latest addition to the chain of conflicts between Greece and Turkey. The apparent reason for the spark seems to be the new-found energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which has attracted competition in the region. However, there is no hiding the longstanding dispute between these countries over their opposing maritime claims in the Aegean Sea. This animosity over the disputed waters intensified when Greece expressed its intention to extend the territorial waters from 6 nautical miles (nm) to 12 nm in the Ionian Sea. In response, Turkey said that a similar move in the Aegean would be a casus belli. Both nations substantiate their claims by citing international law. Such disputes are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other customary international maritime laws. To assess the credibility of these warring claims, the related legal aspect has to be demystified.

Greece and Turkey are the two countries with the longest coastline in the Aegean Sea. Both profess competing rights over the oil and gas reserves, contesting that they belong to their respective exclusive economic zones. Greece is of the view that recent Turkish expeditions conducting seismic surveys and drilling activities violate of international law, as water around Crete belongs to Greece while Cyprus has rights around its island. Evidently, Turkey disagrees and argues that it is well within their rights to carry out drilling as the area falls within its continental shelf. Turkey also avers that the Greek islands of Crete and Rhodes have no effect in limiting the Turkish claims to the continental shelf. The creation of this deadlock can be attributed to the overlapping stakes raised in two bilateral treaties formed between Greece, one between Greece and Egypt and the other between Turkey and Libya. Turkey believes that any move to extend Greece’s territorial waters in the east will lead to the inequitable division of sea resources. This would deprive Turkey of their legitimate rights to exploit such resources, as almost 3/4 of the sea in question would be acquired by Greece on such an extension.

The international law on this issue is indeed hard to reconcile with the arguments of any particular side, and may cause a great deal of dissonance to either party. Nevertheless, the law is settled, which may provide a tenable solution for keeping the stewing rivalries at bay and to find a way out of the existing stalemate. It is pertinent to note here that Turkey is not a party to the UNCLOS, therefore UNCLOS is not necessarily the applicable law. However, it is well established that most of the provisions of the convention are just a crystallized form of customary international maritime law, which is applicable to Turkey generally.

As far as the position espoused by Greece in this matter is concerned, the right to claim 12 nm of territorial waters can be asserted on islands as per Article 121 of UNCLOS. This article provides that any island capable of human habitation can generate maritime rights similar to any other land territory, and said right can be exercised unilaterally as there are no restrictions attached to it. Even the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case of Nicaragua vs. Columbia observed that islands are entitled to have 12nm of territorial sea from their baselines. So, as per this international law, Greece can extend its territorial waters in the east as well with respect to the contested island of Kastellorizo.

On the contrary, Turkey holds a diametrically opposite stance by claiming that far-flung, small Greek islands which are very near to the Turkish mainland cannot have claim to maritime waters of numerous times their own size. Turkey asserts that such an act would amount to an abuse of rights (enshrined in Article 300) and it is against the well-accepted principle of equitable distribution and fairness. However, international jurisprudence on the delimitation of territorial seas between opposing coastal states follows the principle of median line/special circumstances as enunciated in Part 2, Article 15  of UNCLOS, which is also reflected in customary law. In the recent case of Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua, the ICJ went on to elucidate this principle observing that the courts delimit sea boundaries by drawing a provisional median line and then identifying whether any special circumstances exist in that particular case and adjusting the line accordingly. It is noteworthy that islands can be taken into account to assess the baseline as well as the special circumstances to adjust the median line in the delimitation process, as held in the case of Qatar vs. Bahrain.

Further, Turkey claims the waters off of Crete on the basis of a bilateral agreement with Libya, and maintains that such areas lie within the continental shelf appertaining to Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The said agreement is, however, considered null and void by Greece on the grounds that it disregards the presence of Greek islands in the area and that it is therefore against the interests of a third party. The legal framework for delimitation of continental shelves and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) is defined in Articles 74 and 83 of UNCLOS in a rather vague manner, which says that any delimitation shall be done as per the agreement entered into by the parties in accordance with international law to reach an equitable solution. With respect to the delimitation of Continental shelves and EEZs, the approach adopted by international courts have been varying over the years. Significantly, two leading authorities are of relevance here. First, In Libya vs. Malta the court alluded to the equitableness principle in demarcating the continental shelves and considered geographical features as pertinent circumstances to reach an equitable result. Whereas, in another case of Romania vs. Ukraine (2009), the three-step approach was propounded by the ICJ: First, draw a provisional equidistant line; second, consider relevant factors which would justify the adjustments to be made thereof; third, analyze whether the line drawn is equitable and ensure it doesn’t render any disproportionate effects.

In addition to the aforementioned approaches, the principle of non-encroachment was emphasized by Turkey to argue that granting maritime rights to the far-off Greek islands located near the Turkish mainland will have a cut-off effect on its coastal projections based on the well-founded Nicaragua vs. Columbia case. The facts were similar to the present case, and the court found that the provisional equidistant line had a cut-off effect on Nicaragua because of the presence of small Columbian islands off the Nicaraguan coast. Therefore, the court gave due consideration to the non-encroachment principle and made adjustments to the median line in favor of Nicaragua. Moreover, the court established that application of this principle shall be to avoid cut-off effect on either of the parties.

The above discussion highlights that claims of both conflicting nations are supported by precedents as well as customary international law, to an extent. However, the contrasts in this case makes it difficult to arrive at a conclusion as to the legality of their actions or conduct.

The eye-for-an-eye approach adopted by the parties to the dispute is unnecessarily escalating the rift. It is high time that these conflicting nations strive to abide by the obligation under international law to reach a peaceful settlement of disputes in order to maintain world peace as set out in Article 2(3) of the UN Charter. Negotiation has been of no avail in this matter, as the history speaks for itself. The world is skeptical that talks or reconciliation efforts shall be unsuccessful as there won’t be any legally binding effect.  Nevertheless, both countries can dress up and shoot the breeze to reach a solution with a willingness to modify their stance for the purpose of mutual benefit. Apart from this, the most viable recourse for a resolution is to submit the matter to the jurisdiction of the ICJ as per Article 36 of the ICJ statute. Both countries have to reach a special agreement deciding upon the issues to be submitted for the adjudication. If the parties take this option, then it is most likely that a permanent solution can be reached to benefit the Mediterranean region as a whole.


Saumya Gupta is fifth year B.A.LLB. (Hons.) student of the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi (India).


Suggested citation: Saumya Gupta, A Resolution for International Disputes in Greco-Turkish Seas, JURIST – Student Commentary, September 17, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/09/saumya-gupta-greece-turkey-maritime-dispute/.

This article was prepared for publication by Timothy Miller, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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