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For centuries, Greece and Turkey have been unable to come to terms with each other. Partly due to the territorial and maritime claims and disagreements over them. This has caused both countries to jet fighter planes with orders 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.
Much of the controversy flared after Athens engineered a coup in Cyprus in 1974 with the intent to annex the island. Turkey seeking 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. Much of the disputes revolved around the Aegean Sea. The 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, to say the least. With more than 2,400 islands and high seas in between, space is a vitally important region to have bragging rights over. Economic and security zones of influence, Greece and Turkey, unsurprisingly are the only two nations who have not taken on seemingly incompatible positions on the exercise of sovereignty.
At the heart of the dispute is the evolution of the Law of the Sea and the territorial division resulting from the Treaty of Lausanne and the Treaty of Paris which seemed naturally titled towards Athens. The treaties, by virtues of certain principles, granted ownership over nearly all of the islands in the Aegean 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 11nm 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 increased and due to the vastness and scattered quantity of Greek islands, the Aegean Sea resembled a dominion of the Greeks.
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 neighbour 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 is because national interests are at stake. Should Greece extend its territorial sea in the Aegean its share of control would jump considerably? The big 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 neighbour.
Turkey cannot allow the Aegean to become a Greek lake and the reason for this is tied directly to national security 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 security are 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 is 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 ships, both civilian and military, can still pass through it under the conditions of Transit Passage as per the Convention, but the trouble is that in practice the right of passage has tangible restrictions for military vessels. As per Part 3, Article 38 and of the Convention, warships cannot make sudden manoeuvres or even hold security drills; submarines must navigate on the surface. And inspections are possible if Greece were to expand its territorial waters to the full extent of the law.
Thus, if this is 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 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 regardless of who is right to ensure its security. 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.
Political rhetoric and military posturing do little but open old wounds, in turn, such political sentiment. Lawmakers raise defence spending which then increases the odds miscalculation. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, a zero-sum game.
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 the workaround would restrict sovereignty in areas sensitive to navigation while enforcing it in areas that are necessary for security which islands would subscribe to what level of sovereignty is a matter of debate. 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 law student at Jindal
Kindly note that the views and opinion expressed are of the author and not of the Indian Journal of Law and Public Policy.