Greece, Turkey should refocus on key issue in eastern Mediterranean dispute
Greece has for weeks been asking Turkey to stop its seismic research in an area of the eastern Mediterranean that it claims to be within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while refusing to negotiate with Ankara if it did not withdraw the Oruc Reis vessel from the area. Turkey had been responding that it would not negotiate with Greece if Athens put forward preconditions. This tug of war seems to have been suspended for now, with the vessel on Sunday arriving back in port for “regular maintenance.”
Whether or not the vessel was genuinely withdrawn for maintenance purposes, this was a welcome development, because the main reason for the conflict had almost been forgotten. From the outset, the key issue has been whether the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo — which is situated close to Turkey’s southern coast — should have its own EEZ. French President Emmanuel Macron’s frequent interventions in the Turkish-Greek conflict were delaying discussions over this issue.
Focusing on Kastellorizo may also help France disentangle itself from an unnecessary imbroglio because its position is even more untenable than that of Greece. This is because France has in the past argued the opposite of what it says in the Turkish-Greek conflict before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Let us first take a look at Greece’s case. Athens claims that it is entitled to a 40,000 square km EEZ in the eastern Mediterranean because of the tiny, 10 square km Kastellorizo island, which is located just 1 mile from the Turkish coast and about 350 miles from the Greek mainland. This amounts to claiming that Kastellorizo, which is home to about 500 people, can create an EEZ 4,000 times bigger than its entire surface.
Greece bases its claims on the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The convention states in its article 121.3 that: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” By negative interpretation, Greece probably draws from this article the conclusion that an island may have an EEZ or continental shelf if it is inhabited. Greece should not be blamed for this approach. It is natural for any country to pick out from an international convention the provisions that favor its national interests. However, there are, in the same convention, several other provisions that support Turkey’s claims.
France has in the past successfully argued the opposite of what it says in the Turkish-Greek conflict.
Greece and France ignore not only the UNCLOS provisions that are in favor of Turkey, but also a catalogue of ICJ verdicts that support Ankara’s position. In two of them, France was a direct party.
The first concerned the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which are close to the French coast but belong to the UK. The British government claimed that the maritime space between these two islands and its coast should be considered as a British EEZ. The two countries could not agree and decided to refer the case to the ICJ, which ruled in favor of France. That is to say that the two islands could have their own territorial waters around them, but beyond that it was high sea rather than a British EEZ.
The second example involved a French dispute with Canada that was resolved in 1992. There are two islands — St. Pierre and Miquelon — at the entrance to Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence that belong to France. Paris claimed that the EEZ of these two islands should stretch all the way to the median line between the islands and the Canadian peninsula of Nova Scotia. The ICJ, consistent with its verdict on the Channel Islands, ruled against France’s claim. That is to say, St. Pierre and Miquelon could claim to have sovereignty over the territorial waters around them, but beyond that it was high sea.
Other examples of similar verdicts handed down by the ICJ include the conflicts between Tunisia and Libya over the Kerkennah Islands and Jerba in 1982; Guinea-Bissau and Guinea over Alcatraz island in 1983; Eritrea and Yemen over Jabal Al-Tair and the Zubair Group in 1999; Ukraine and Romania over Snake Island in 2009; Bangladesh and Myanmar over St. Martin’s Island in 2012; and Nicaragua and Venezuela over Providencia and San Andres islands, also in 2012. All these ICJ verdicts say that the EEZs of such islands are confined to their territorial waters.
If the present respite leads Turkey and Greece to submit their conflict to the ICJ, there would be much relief at this outcome.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar