Daily Sabah: Kastellorizo: One of Turkey and Greece’s interrelated controversies

Daily Sabah: Kastellorizo: One of Turkey and Greece’s interrelated controversies


The tension between neighbors and NATO allies Turkey and Greece have escalated once again over two issues. The first is Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. Hagia Sophia reopened for prayers after a recent court decision to revert it back to a mosque from a museum. Greece sees itself as the descendent of the Byzantine Empire, which lost Istanbul 567 years ago with Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s conquest, and strongly opposed Turkey’s move, a matter of the country’s sovereignty. Turkey turned Hagia Sophia into a museum 85 years ago. It was not based on an international consensus. It was Turkey’s decision. Now, it has decided to reopen it as a mosque, and again, it is Turkey’s right to make such a decision.

The other matter that escalated tension between the two allies was Greece’s reaction to Turkey’s NAVTEX for the research vessel Oruç Reis to start drilling near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Arguing that Turkey was violating Greece’s continental shelf, Athens issued a counter-NAVTEX and placed its navy on alert, causing a war scare in the Western world. Turkey yet again rebuffed Greek’s claim based on the island of Kastellorizo, saying that the island did not have a continental shelf. After that, it deployed 15 warships to the area.

Tensions have eased for now, but Kastellorizo remains a serious issue for the two countries.

Turkey and Greece have long-standing disagreements revolving around the Aegean over territorial waters, continental shelves, the militarization of islands, Aegean air space and search and rescue operations. In addition to the Cyprus dispute, the disagreements over the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction in the East Mediterranean have further complicated the problems between the two countries.

The maritime jurisdiction area claimed by Greece is based on the islands of Crete, Kasos, Karpathos, Rhodes and Kastellorizo. Accordingly, Greece argues that its maritime boundary extends from those islands to the east and south. However, these areas significantly overlap with the maritime jurisdiction areas of Turkey’s Anatolian peninsula.

Turkey argues that the notion of “continental shelf,” by definition, means distances should be measured from the continental mainland, claiming that the Aegean seabed is geographically a natural prolongation of the Anatolian landmass. When two states’ maritime claims overlap, the division is made by the median line. This means that Turkey is entitled to economic zones up to the median line of the Aegean, except for the territorial waters around the Greek islands in its eastern half, which would remain as Greek exclaves. However, Greece claims that all islands must be taken into account on an equal basis as a mainland. If we accept that, Greece would gain economic rights to almost the whole Aegean.

In this context, Greece has claimed a maritime zone according to the position of Kastellorizo island, the focal point of the maritime dispute in question.

The contentious and tiny island was handed over Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1932, and in 1947, it was given to Greece by the Italians in the Treaty of Paris, a treaty that Turkey did not participate in. Turkey has never recognized Greece’s claims over the island.

Home to a population of only 500, Kastellorizo lies less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from Kaş, a town on Turkey’s Anatolian peninsula. An average swimmer could swim between the two points. It is, on the other hand, located 115 kilometers east of the nearest Greek island of Rhodes.

As I have explained, its maritime line stretching through Crete, Rhodes and Kastellorizo is the basis for the demarcation of its territorial waters, according to Greece. But the line from Rhodes to Kastellorizo closes off the Turkish coastline. Considering this fact and a possible delimitation of the Greek exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with Egypt and Cyprus, the continental shelf and the EEZ of Turkey are confined only to the Gulf of Antalya. That will make Turkey, which has one of the longest shores in the East Mediterranean, a prisoner in the region.

Turkey has an equity-based viewpoint on the matter and says Kastellorizo should not have an EEZ since it is a very small island right across from the Turkish mainland. Turkey argues that Kastellorizo, as a tiny island, cannot claim maritime jurisdiction that is 4,000 times larger than its own landmass since an EEZ has to be based on the relative lengths of adjacent coastlines.

The most fundamental rule regarding the delimitation of the continental shelf, “land dominates the sea,” clearly underlines that territorial aspects like continental size and the length of the coastline are determining factors in the demarcation of maritime areas. The Turkish view is that demarcation should be done on a geometrically objective basis, but Greece ignores this fact.

Normally, the rule of “equidistance” is the de facto method for delimitation. If the coasts of two states are opposite or adjacent to each other, the maritime boundary delimitation line should be at an equal distance from each state’s shores.

However, there are special circumstances and the equidistance line can change. Exceptions can be made for islands located right off the shore of another state, such as Kastellorizo, the island right off the coast of Turkey. The goal here is to find a solution for inequity that puts a state in a geographically disadvantaged position.

That is why the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) adopts an approach that combines the “equidistance rule” and consideration for “special circumstances.” This approach is also employed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as we can see in the judgment concerning the delimitation of the North Sea continental shelves between Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.

In the case in question, the ICJ rejected the equidistance principle as a natural consequence of continental shelf rights, in favor of Germany. The court said, “Delimitation is to be effected by agreement in accordance with equitable principles and taking account of all the relevant circumstances, in such a way as to leave as much as possible to each party all those parts of the continental shelf that constitute a natural prolongation of its land territory into and under the sea, without encroachment on the natural prolongation of the land territory of the other.”

On the other hand, regarding maritime boundary delimitation between a small island and a coastal state, the ICJ approaches an island’s EEZ claim by considering the distance of the island to the mainland of its sovereign state and the length of the adjacent state’s coastline.

For instance, in the Romania-Ukraine delimitation case, the court conducted a proportionality study to determine an island’s distorting effect on maritime delimitation and said: “(The court) may on occasion decide not to take account of very small islands or decide not to give them their full potential entitlement to maritime zones, should such an approach have a disproportionate effect on the delimitation line under consideration. In this case, the presence of Ukrainian Serpents’ Island did not call for an adjustment of the provisional equidistance line between Ukraine and Romania: Any continental shelf and exclusive economic zone entitlements possibly generated by Serpents’ Island could not project further than the entitlements generated by Ukraine’s mainland coast.”

The “equitable solution” instead of the “equidistance rule” of the UNCLOS is a basis for arbitrating maritime delimitations and gives Turkey the upper hand in the dispute.

In short, the proportionality of the length of adjacent coastlines in adjusting an equidistance line for maritime delimitation cannot be excluded. Obviously, Kastellorizo’s size, distance from mainland Greece and close proximity to Turkey, as well as the relative length of total coastline, has a hugely disproportionate effect on a potential EEZ delimitation.

That is why Turkey has called for the consideration of special circumstances for the island of Kastellorizo and the Turkish mainland and argues that the “proportionality” rule as applied by the ICJ in the Ukraine-Romania dispute should be applied in this case as well.

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