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Greek-Turkish dispute over the delimitation of the continental shelf
Greek-Turkish disputes over the Aegean continental shelf date back to November 1973, when the Turkish Government Gazette published a decision to grant the Turkish national petroleum company permits to conduct research in the Greek continental shelf west of Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean.
Since then, the repeated Turkish attempts to violate Greece’s sovereign rights on the continental shelf have become a serious source of friction in the two countries’ bilateral relations, even bringing them close to war (1974, 1976, 1987).
In 1976, Greece brought this very serious issue before the UN Security Council and unilaterally resorted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Turkey refused to come before the Court, invoking its non-recognition of the Court’s jurisdiction. The Court did not examine the substance of the issue for reasons of formality, due to lack of competence.
The two countries launched negotiations on the issue of the continental shelf and in November 1976, signed the Berne procès-verbal setting out a framework for dialogue on the issue until it was submitted to the International Court. But this dialogue was inconclusive and ended in 1981 due to Turkey’s continuous vacillations and intransigent stance, thus the Berne procès-verbal - the validity and duration of which directly depended on the course of the negotiations – ceased to apply.
In March 2002, within the framework of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement inaugurated in 1999, the two sides agreed on a process of confidential exploratory contacts which are still ongoing, in order to find out whether and to what extent there is common ground and the conditions are in place to launch negotiations that might come to an agreement regarding the continental shelf in accordance with the Law of the Sea.
In case it seems no common ground can be found within a reasonable amount of time, Greece’s firm position – which coincides completely with international law and has been set as a prerequisite for Turkey's accession course – is to bring the issue before the ICJ for resolution. But given that Turkey has not recognized the Court’s general, mandatory jurisdiction, a special agreement (an agreement to refer a dispute to arbitrators) is required that will constitute the legal basis for the ICJ’s jurisdiction.
Greece’s positions on the substance of the continental shelf issue and its limits are based on the applicable provisions of the Law of the Sea, both Contractual and Customary, which are the following:
• The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides for exclusive rights ipso facto and ab initio of a coastal state on its continental shelf which has a minimum breadth of 200 nautical miles, provided the distance between opposing coasts allows for this. Greece ratified this Treaty by Law 2321/1995, which according to the Constitution supersedes any provision to the contrary, and as the newest law takes precedence over any previous one.
• In accordance with Article 121 (2) of the Convention of the Law of the Sea all islands have a right to territorial waters, a contiguous zone, an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf. These zone are determined in accordance with the general provisions of the Convention, as those are implemented in mainland regions. This general rule is also customary law and is thus also binding for the states that are not signatories to Convention. Therefore, all the Greek islands have a continental shelf in accordance with the Law of the Sea.
• Within this framework, an issue of delimitation of the continental shelf is only raised between the coast of Greek islands across from Turkey and the Turkish coast.
• With regard to the delimitation method, Greece’s firm position is that this delimitation must be based on international law, governed by the principle of equidistance/median line.
In this respect, it is noted that, according to article 156 of Law 4001/2011 (Government Gazette Α΄ 179 – “For the operation of electricity and gas energy markets, for exploration, production and transmission networks of hydrocarbons and other provisions”), in the absence of a delimitation agreement with neighbouring States, the outer limit of the continental shelf is the median line between the Greek coasts and the coasts opposite or adjacent to those.