Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent comments are a reiteration of the position laid out in detail in two letters to the United Nations secretary-general by the country’s permanent representative, Feridun Sinirlioglu, dated July 30 and September 30. In them, Turkey argues that demilitarization provisions remain in force and that by keeping troops on its islands, Greece is in violation of international treaties. This, claims Turkey, threatens its security. It even makes the unfounded claim that sovereignty of these islands was conditional to their demilitarization under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. It is a “creative interpretation” of the treaty that allows Turkey to challenge their sovereignty, hence Cavusoglu’s most recent statement that Greece has no sovereign rights over militarized islands. In short, Turkey is seeking to create a dilemma between demilitarization or having Greek sovereignty challenged.
In a broader context, this is also part of an effort by Turkey to expand its so-called “gray zones” theory, this time focusing on the sovereignty of the bigger islands. The overarching aim is, possibly, to make it hard if not impossible for these islands to make their lawful and legitimate claim in a future delineation of maritime zones.
Does the law support Turkey’s newly hatched theories? Greece’s line of arguments has thoroughly refuted Turkish claims regarding the demilitarization of the islands and the claim that Greek sovereignty hinges upon demilitarization is unfounded.
Article 12 of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty unconditionally confirms Greek sovereignty over the islands of Limnos, Samothraki, Mytilene, Chios, Samos and Ikaria. In order to safeguard peace, Greece undertook (Article 13) to observe certain restrictions regarding the presence of military troops, equipment and naval bases on Mytilene, Chios, Samos and Ikaria. Furthermore, Turkey renounced all rights and title whatsoever – without asterisks – over the islands under Greek territory (Article 16). It also renounced (Article 15) all rights and title over the Dodecanese islands as well as Kastellorizo in favor of Italy. (Under the 1947 Peace Treaty, sovereignty of these was ceded by Italy to Greece.) The demilitarization of Limnos and Samothraki, along with the demilitarization of the Dardanelles, was governed by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty of the Straits. This was annulled by the 1936 Montreux Treaty, which laid the path to the militarization of the Straits, thus also of the islands.
The restrictions on the deployment of troops on the islands refer to a provisional contractual regime designed to maintain peace. The Greek-Turkish treaty of “friendship, neutrality and conciliation” signed between Eleftherios Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1930 sealed peace between the two states and the reason behind the restrictions came to an end.
The notion of demilitarization as tantamount to peace in the interwar years did not contribute to security, which is why the states were eager to release themselves from the commitment. As far as the islands of the northeastern Aegean are concerned, radical changes in circumstances justify their release from any demilitarization commitments. Likewise, security and peace are a concern that every state seeks to ensure by means of the legal instruments of post-war international law, exercising the inherent and inalienable right to legal defense. Demilitarization has a negative effect on the security of the state, depriving it of the right to defend itself and of the ability to prepare itself for exercising that right. On the other hand, Turkey, in order to counter the fact that as a non-signatory to the 1947 Treaty of Paris it has no legitimacy to invoke a violation of the demilitarization of the Dodecanese, it machinates an argument that such an obligation is objective in nature. In order to back the claim that its national security is under threat, Turkey has invoked the interwar Aland islands dispute involving their demilitarized status.
The provisional restrictions on keeping troops on the islands prescribed in the Treaty of Lausanne were associated with the restoration of peace and were not stipulated as a condition of sovereignty. Turkey is not entitled to raise issues of sovereignty that have been settled under the Lausanne Treaty, an agreement that by no means stipulates that sovereignty over the islands is subject to the condition of their demilitarization.
After all, Turkey has for 57 years consistently and firmly consented – a fact which underscores its commitment – to the unquestionable sovereignty of the islands, since 1964 when it first made an issue of an alleged violation of the demilitarization obligation, thereby indicating in practice that sovereignty is not challenged.
Professor Petros Liakouras teaches international law and heads the International and European Studies postgraduate program at the University of Piraeus.