It has long been a source of frustration for the Turks to have limited entitlement to parts of the Mediterranean under current international law. Much less than the smaller Greek arch-rival, which in fact owns almost all the islands in the Aegean Sea over these waters. Turkish discontent has only intensified as more oil and gas can be extracted from the seabed than before, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, with modern technology.
The Erdogan government tried to change this by unilaterally claiming a large exclusive economic zone around Cyprus that surrounds almost the entire island. It did something similar at the end of last year through an agreement with Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s Libyan government, also recognized by the UN. The treaty divided the strip of sea between the two countries in two, bypassing the rights that Greece can assert over parts of the zone due to the location of the neighboring island of Crete.
Two prominent Dutch international lawyers understand the Turkish frustrations, but consider the claims to be hopeless from a legal point of view. Alex Oude Elferink, professor of international law of the sea in Utrecht, explains that when defining territorial sea (up to 12 nautical miles from the coast) and exclusive economic zones (up to 200 nautical miles from the coast), there is usually a so-called equidistance line is drawn. An equal distance from the coast of both states is maintained. “Then we look at whether there are circumstances that should also be taken into account, for example whether some smaller islands should not be included in the equidistance line. Then it is examined whether the proposed distribution is fair for both states. Attention is paid to the length of the coastline of states, not to the land mass behind that coastline. ”
Turkey argues that it must take control of a larger part of the Aegean Sea on the basis of a factor that can also legally weigh in: its continental shelf. That term refers to the area that slopes gently from the mainland under the seabed. On the basis of this, states can claim a piece of the sea and engage in economic activities there. Sometimes states feel deprived and try to get a bigger zone after all. Germany set a precedent for this, which objected to a disproportionately small share in the distribution of the continental shelf in the North Sea in the Netherlands and Denmark. The case was brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which in 1969 Germany allocated a larger share on fairness grounds than could be expected under the equal distance line.
But such claims in the Aegean Sea get in the way of the numerous Greek islands – each in principle entitled to a territorial sea 12 nautical miles wide – for the Turks. “It is very unfortunate for the Turks,” says Nico Schrijver, professor of international law in Leiden, “but these rules now count as customary international law. If Turkey were to challenge the current division before international courts such as the International Court of Justice or the Maritime Tribunal in Hamburg, I don’t think they would stand a chance. ” The fact that Turkey is not a party to the UN convention on the law of the sea does not prevent this, according to Schrijver.
Oude Elferink: “If you so completely disregard the claims of other states, you are not acting in accordance with international law.” The same goes for his agreement with Libya, he says.
Regarding Cyprus, Turkey stands alone, as the only UN member state that does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus. The Republic of Northern Cyprus, established by the Turks after the 1974 invasion, is not recognized by anyone else in the world. The EU has threatened Turkey with sanctions if it carries out economic activities in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on June 29, 2020
A version of this article also appeared in June 29, 2020, in nrc.next