Demarcating maritime zones

Demarcating maritime zones

An article by Vassilis Nedos which appeared in Kathimerini’s Sunday edition on May 10, titled “Ankara’s militarization on Athens’ radar,” refers to Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci’s book “Requirements of Greece: The Problems in the Aegean with Questions and Answers,” which was published recently by the Turkish Navy.

In this work, the report says, the Turkish side appears to have revived the old and outdated argument that the delineation of a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) hinges upon geological characteristics. The two concepts, the argument goes, have a geological dimension and, as a result, Greece’s easternmost Aegean islands sit on the continental shelf and EEZ of Asia Minor’s continental land mass; they constitute the natural extension of Turkey’s land territory along the seabed. As a result, the argument goes, islands do not have the power to automatically generate continental shelf or EEZ rights.

The natural relationship between land territory and seabed has indeed played a crucial role in the early stages of continental shelf definition. The Truman Proclamation of The Continental Shelf (1945) says that a coastal state can exercise jurisdiction and control over the natural resources of the subsoil and the seabed “since the continental shelf may be regarded as an extension of the land mass of the coastal nation and thus naturally appurtenant to it.” The geological criterion also influences the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, adopted at Geneva. Finally, a 1969 decision by the International Court of Justice refers to “the rights of the coastal state in respect of the area of continental shelf constituting a natural prolongation of its land territory under the sea…”

After that point, geological criteria were gradually abandoned and limits began to be delineated on the basis of distance criteria. In other words, the continental shelf was no longer defined on the basis of the natural relationship between land territory and seabed, but on the basis of its distance from the shoreline. The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which was completed in 1982 and which adopted the Convention on the Law of the Sea, rejected geological criteria in favor of a criterion that was solely based on a 200-nautical mile distance of the outer limit of the continental shelf from the land territory of the coastal state. As for states with narrow sea zones, the treaty stipulated a delineation on the basis of an agreement (never unilaterally) which would result in a fair arrangement on the basis of international law.

Article 83 of the convention, which foresees the aforementioned delineation method, has now acquired universal character, binding both signatories and third parties. Meanwhile, in international case law, which adopts this particular delimitation method, there is no instance of geological criteria being taken into consideration, as a special circumstance, either for a modification of a provisional median line or for its confirmation.

If the criterion of the distance from the coastline is currently applied as the basis of continental shelf delineation, this is a fortiori true for the demarcation of the EEZ, which constitutes a more full expression of coastal states’ quest for maritime rights.

Indeed, the application of geological criteria as a basis for a legal title to the sovereign rights of the continental shelf reflects the early hesitation of the international community to expand jurisdiction over what had until then been seas that were completely free. And the natural relationship between land territory and the adjacent seabed was an intelligent and imaginative way of justifying this contravention of the freedom of the seas. With the passage of time, inhibitions were put to rest as states succumbed to the appeal of exploiting wealth-producing seabed and subsoil resources. And since this “moral” obstacle was no longer in the way, humanity went on to introduce the distance criterion, freeing the continental shelf from any guilty insinuations. In fact, it took one more brave step further: It adopted the EEZ, a multifunctional zone within the boundaries of the continental shelf, which added more maritime resources to the coastal state’s exclusive jurisdiction. The existence of the EEZ, which was a purely artificial zone, did not rely on geological pretexts. For this reason, EEZ delimitation has from early on been based on the distance criterion. So, if Turkish arguments have any historical weight, given the past insistence of the international community on geological criteria, this is completely groundless in the case of the EEZ. The EEZ is a zone which was created to serve the state’s appetite for the sea’s wealth-producing resources.

There is a second argument in Yayci’s book which requires an answer: In his effort to justify the legal basis of the recent memorandum signed between Turkey and Libya, he resorts to an absurd theory, namely that of “diagonal lines” which allow the demarcation of maritime zones between Turkey and Libya, despite the existence of Greek islands in the area. However, if we assume that these diagonal lines can justify the delineation of maritime boundaries between these two countries, there is still the problem that the Greek islands in the region have coastlines of significant length which constitute their baseline for continental shelf and EEZ delineation; and these cannot be overridden by any “diagonal lines.” The problem which remains is that on the basis of the diagonal lines theory, the eastern coasts of Rhodes, Karpathos and Crete, and the southern coast of Crete cannot constitute baselines that generate continental shelf and EEZ rights to these islands. Although perhaps not in the same manner as continental land masses, islands are still entitled to generate continental shelf and EEZ rights. Yayci fails to answer this question.

I believe that the groundless arguments employed by the author are only the latest in a long chain of similar arguments invented by Ankara to justify its illegal and unilateral actions which are banned and condemned by international law.

Christos Rozakis is emeritus professor of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.