A Turkish coast guard ship patrols in the Aegean Sea off the Turkish coast, in a file photo.
Following his resignation from the post of foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias said that Greece was ready to extend its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles. This came as surprise to Greece’s political parties and drew a strong reaction from Turkey, which claimed that any extension of Greece’s territorial waters in the Aegean would be considered a casus belli. Here I would like to examine some of the most important questions related to a possible extension of Greek territorial waters.
What are territorial waters?
Territorial waters (also known as territorial sea) are a belt of sea adjacent to the shores of a state. This zone includes the water column, seabed below and airspace above it. States have full sovereignty in this area. The only restriction to this sovereignty is the right of innocent passage enjoyed by all ships without prior notification of the coastal state. Since the 1970s, all coastal states in the world (except Greece) have expanded their territorial waters to 12 nautical miles. This customary rule is stipulated by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
What are the boundaries of Greek and Turkish territorial waters?
In 1936, Greece established a 6-nautical mile territorial sea measured from its normal baseline. However, a 10-nautical mile limit of national airspace was maintained, following previous legislation from 1931. Turkey extended its territorial sea from 3 to 6 nautical miles in 1964. Meanwhile, it declared that against states claiming wider territorial waters, the width of Turkish territorial waters is determined on the basis of reciprocity. Ever since, Turkey has applied the 6-mile rule in the Aegean and the 12-mile rule in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.
What is casus belli?
Realizing the consequences of a Greek territorial sea extension, Turkey in 1974 declared that a Greek decision to expand its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles would constitute a casus belli (a situation that justifies a war). The threat also came in the form of a resolution by the Turkish National Assembly in 1995. The threat is in blatant violation of a fundamental rule of international law, namely Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, which stipulates that all member-states shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of other states.
What are Turkey’s arguments against a Greek maritime border extension?
Turkey claims that 12 miles is the maximum limit to which a state’s territorial sea can be extended. It asserts that a state cannot always extend its territorial waters to the full. According to Turkey, the unique geography of the Aegean Sea constitutes “special circumstances” which do not allow Greece to extend its maritime borders to 12 miles, or, it says, the Aegean will essentially turn into a Greek lake. That would go against Turkey’s “vital interests” in the area. Furthermore, Turkey argues that in cases of states bordering enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, such as the Aegean, the extension of maritime borders can only take place with the consent of the coastal neighbor.
Do Turkey’s arguments hold water?
Turkey’s legal arguments are extremely weak. The widespread practice of states since the 1970s has led to the creation of a mutually acceptable rule of customary international law attributing an unconditional right to 12 miles territorial sea for all coastal states. Since 1964 Turkey has expanded its maritime borders in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Aegean is indeed an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea. In such cases, coastal states have an obligation to cooperate only on issues related to the environment and maritime scientific research. There are many equivalent geographical circumstances all over the world. Ships from seven Baltic states have to cross Danish, Swedish or German territorial waters to reach the North Sea. About 50 percent of the oil that is shipped annually by tankers passes through the Strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. No country has dared question the right of Iran and Oman to extend their maritime borders to 12 miles just because ships navigating through this strategically important passage would have to pass through the respective territorial waters of these two countries.
Why is Turkey taking issue with Greece’s maritime border expansion?
A decision to extend Greek territorial waters to 12 miles would have a catalytic effect on most of Turkey’s Aegean claims:
- The area of the Aegean continental shelf that would remain to be claimed by Greece and Turkey would be limited to 5 percent of the Aegean. That would make the dispute irrelevant.
- It would end the inconsistency between Greece’s 6-mile belt of territorial sea and a 10-mile column of airspace. The percentage of Aegean waters under Greek jurisdiction lying within the boundaries of the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR) and of the search and rescue (SAR) area in the Aegean would rise from 43 percent today to 72 percent. Turkish efforts to shift the boundaries would be deprived of any legitimacy.
- Ankara’s claims of so-called “gray zones” in the Aegean were raised in a bid to add a legal definition of the continental shelf to its existing dispute of Greek sovereignty over certain Aegean islands. If Greek maritime borders were to be expanded, Turkey’s claims would only have a symbolic character.
- The only issues that would persist are those related to the demilitarization of eastern Aegean islands and the continental shelf of Kastellorizo in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Does an extension of Greece’s territorial sea require an agreement between the two states?
Article 3 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Turkey is not a signatory of the Convention, nevertheless it is obliged to follow the elements of the treaty that represent codification of rules of customary international law) says that “every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea.” In effect, extending maritime borders is Greece’s exclusive right. Regrettably, during the so-called exploratory talks in the past, Greece has agreed to discuss with Turkey ways in which this unilateral right can be exercised. The two sides discussed, without reaching an agreement, whether Athens could refrain either from extending its territorial waters to the maximum 12-mile limit, or from extending them at all, in certain islands close to Turkey’s western coasts.
Why has there been no Greek decision on extending the maritime borders?
There has always been some reason (usually a good one). In 1973, when the issue was first discussed, the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea had only just started to convene. The idea in Athens was that the conference would strengthen Greece’s positions. The conference was concluded in 1982, resulting in the Law of the Sea Convention, but the treaty only came into force in 1994. Greece ratified it in May 1995. A fresh opportunity arose with Turkey’s casus belli resolution in June 1995. Instead of defending its legitimate right, Greek foreign policymakers sought to lift the resolution of the Turkish Assembly which was, in any case, completely illegal. Greece has for decades been monotonously regurgitating that the extension of its territorial sea is a unilateral right that will be exercised when and if it is deemed appropriate. A decision is put off ad kalendas graecas.
What have the results of this policy been?
Turkey’s casus belli violates basic principles of international law. However, since Turkey has illegally stationed military personnel in three neighboring countries – Cyprus, Syria and Iraq – the casus belli threat has to be taken under serious consideration. That said, we have gone to the other extreme. In our efforts not to “upset” Turkey, we have abstained from exercising our rights in all our seas. In practice, time for us froze in 1974. We currently lay claim to the following sad privileges: Greece is the only one of the world’s 149 coastal states not to have extended its territorial seas to 12 miles. Greece, along with Albania, Kuwait and Montenegro, are the only countries that have not declared any other zones of national jurisdiction beyond their territorial sea. Although (on a rhetorical level) we claim to have the international Law of the Sea as our guiding principle, we are essentially the state that has the smallest maritime area of jurisdiction in the world. Something is fundamentally wrong, and we need to change it.
Angelos M. Syrigos is an associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’s Panteion University.