Analysis of the Interplay of International Law and Politics in the Mediterranean Sea through the Lens of Greece and Turkey

Ankit Malhotra*

For centuries, Greece and Turkey have been unable to come to terms with each other. Due to the territorial and maritime claims and disagreements over them. This has caused both countries to fly military aircrafts and jets with mandates to violate the airspaces. Furthermore, the Aegean Sea has witnessed Greek and Turkish warships collide with each other during a standoff. In the current climate, things are heating, and tensions are rising. Lawmakers in Athens are pushing to expand their Territorial Sea. This has not settled well with the Turks who have vowed to strike back. While the Greek claim is legitimate and within the confines of international law. This, nonetheless, has not stopped Turkey from retaliating.

The disputes flared after Athens’ attempted coup on Cyprus in 1974 with the intent to annex the island. Turkey sought to protect her ethnic kin on the island invaded Cyprus. This resulted in its occupation of the north of the island when hostilities ceased. Later, Athens and Ankara started delineation talks to secure their military positions in addition to territories. Most of the disputes revolved around the Aegean Sea. The Aegan Sea is an extension of the Mediterranean Sea which is bounded by the Greek and Anatolian peninsulas. The geography of the Aegean region is complicated as about 2,400 islands are sandwiched between the High Seas. While the archipelagic region is dotted the influence over space is vital for economic and security reasons.

Greece and Turkey unsurprisingly are the only two nations who have not taken on seemingly incompatible positions on the exercise of sovereignty. It can be argued that, at the heart of the dispute is the evolution of international law.   The Treaty of Lausanne and the Treaty of Paris titled the islands and their control towards Athens because they granted ownership over nearly all of the islands in the Aegan region to Greece.

However, with the evolution of international law following the Second World War, the status quo changed dramatically. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established in 1982 under Article 2 granted both Greece and Turkey the rights to claim up to 11nautical miles off their coasts as their Territorial Sea. With the advent of the new international legal system, suddenly, the Turks found themselves at a disadvantage. That is because from 1936 onwards the extent of territory had increased and due to the vastness and scattered quantity of Greek islands, the Aegean Sea resembled a dominion of the Greeks which became a major issue for the Turks.

Many within reach of major Turkish urban centres, Greece benefited from this legal evolution at an exponential scale. Nonetheless, Athens has refrained from exercising its legal right for fear of provoking hostilities with its neighbor further cementing the stalemate. In 1995, the Turkish parliament passed a resolution that would grant the country a cause for war if Greece were to enlarge its territorial waters to 22nm unilaterally. The reason for this belligerence was due to the national interests which were are at stake. Thus beckons the question, should Greece extend her territorial sea in the Aegean as that would lead to considerable jump in its share of control. The ‘sea change’ would occur in international waters which would drop and much of it would go to Athens.

This explains turkey’s refusal to recognize the law of the sea and its uninterrupted pressure on its neighbor. Turkey could not allow the Aegean Sea to become a Greek lake and the reason for this is tied directly to national security of the Sea of Marmara which is enclosed by the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. This forms the political-economic and cultural heartland of turkey and its well-being and securities intrinsically tied to the nearby waters of the black sea and the Aegean Sea. Thus, a sudden doubling of hostile territorial water near the Turkish heartland can be considered as an unmistakable threat to turkey.

It would immobilize the Turkish navy and restrict its freedom of navigation to its immediate shores as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as per Art. 2, anything within the belt of the territorial sea is regarded as sovereign territory of the state; this sovereignty also extends to the airspace above and the seabed below. Furthermore, foreign vessels, both civilian and military, can still pass through as per the per provisions Transit Passage listed in Article 38 of the Convention. But, warships cannot make sudden manoeuvres or even hold security drills; submarines must navigate on the surface. Thus, if this were to happen, the Turkish navy would be crippled. Warships going from and to Istanbul would be subject to limitations set by the right of innocent passage or even military procedures embraced by Greece. Major Turkish urban centres like Izmir, a city that is seven times the size of Athens would be nearly cut off. Turkey would be obliged to pass through Greek waters to reach Istanbul and the Turkish heartland would be disconnected from the Mediterranean.

Bringing into context the existing hostility between t Turkey and Greece, the latter is more than likely to use the legal code to suppress the mobility of the former. Either way, it is a security risk no country would accept given its right to ensure security over its territory. The Turkish navy must retain the freedom of navigation in the black sea and the Aegean.

The irony of the situation is that the mechanisms of international law and specifically the law of the sea were designed to grant nations diplomatic means to resolve disputes. Yet in the Aegean, it has done the exact opposite. The way the legal codes evolved have only facilitated more conflict, this, of course, was never the intent but Athens and Ankara are stuck at an impasse. Nonetheless, the principle of equidistance as laid down in the North Sea continental shelf case which will bind them to the median lines is a time-tested solution that is worth exploring.

Turkey and Greece would be better off resolving things on a diplomatic level and there are many ways to go about this but none that would fully satisfy the needs of either side.

International law does not impose a restriction on the 22nm territorial sea but jurisprudence fills the gaps in the law of the sea on the limitation of maritime spaces. There are plenty of nations that have voluntarily limited their territorial seas to avoid geopolitical conflict. For instance, Estonia and Finland limit their sovereignty in the Gulf of Finland. Due to the sheer vastness of the islands in the Aegean, a bilateral agreement between Turkey and Greece could see the islands around Athens with 22nm territorial zone, while the smaller Greek islands by the Turkish coast precisely in the possessions.

Sometimes concessions can strengthen national security similar concessions in the Aegean would give both the Turks and the Greeks some breathing room civilian merchant ships could operate with greater ease. While Istanbul and Athens would remain secure from each other, Izmir would be connected to Istanbul and the Turkish navy could freely go from the Sea of Marmara to the Mediterranean, without passing foreign waters. At the same time, Greece would extend its sovereignty. Altogether this workaround would restrict sovereignty in areas sensitive to navigation while enforcing it in areas that are necessary for security. Whatever is decided, the ultimate resolution will have to maintain reasonably high seas corridors from the black sea to the Turkish straits, to the Mediterranean. The point here is, a bilateral deal would secure both, Greek and Turkish heartlands without giving one side the decisive upper hand. The dispute between Turkey and Greece will not rest easily. The pessimist will complain about high winds the optimist expects it to change but the realist adjusts the sails.

About the Author

Ankit Malhotra is a second year LL.B. student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat, Haryana.

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