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Starting in the early 1990s, Turkish officials began to develop the novel theory of grey zones. This theory of reinterpreting international agreements challenges Greek sovereignty over a number of islands, islets and rocks in the Aegean. More specifically, Turkey maintains that Greek sovereignty extends only to those islands of the Aegean that are mentioned by name in the texts of the agreements under which these islands were ceded to Greece.
However, the international legal framework which settled the issues of sovereignty in the region after the World Wars (1923 Treaty of Lausanne and 1947 Paris Peace Treaty) is conclusive and crystal clear.
More specifically, Article 12 of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty provides for the following: the decision taken on 13 February 1914 by the Conference of London, in virtue of Articles 5 of the Treaty of London of 17-30 May 1913, and Article 15 of the Treaty of Athens of 1-14 November 1913, which decision was communicated to the Greek Government on 13 February 1914, regarding the sovereignty of Greece over the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean, other than the islands of Imbros, Tenedos and Rabbit islands, particularly the islands of Limnos, Samothrace, Mytilene, Chios, Samos and Ikaria is confirmed, subject to the provisions of the present Treaty respecting the islands placed under the sovereignty of Italy which form the subject of Article 15. Except where a provision to the contrary is contained in the present Treaty, the islands situated at less than three miles from the Asiatic coast remain under Turkey’s sovereignty.
According to Article 15 of the Treaty of Lausanne, “Turkey renounces in favour of Italy all rights and title over the following islands: Stampalia (Astrapalia), Rhodes (Rhodos), Calki, Karpathos, Kassos, Tilos, Nisyros, Kalymnos, Leros, Patmos, Lipsos, Symi and Kos, which are now occupied by Italy, and the islets dependent thereon, and also over the island of Kastellorizo”. Furthermore, Article 14 of the Paris Peace Treaty (10.12.1947) provides that: Italy hereby cedes to Greece in full sovereignty the Dodecanese islands indicated hereafter, namely Astropalia, Rhodes, Calki, Karpathos, Kassos, Tilos, Nisyros, Kalymnos, Leros, Patmos, Lipsos, Symi, Kos and Kastellorizo, as well as the adjacent islets.
Moreover, the Article 16 of the Treaty of Lausanne provides that: “Turkey hereby renounces all rights and title whatsoever over or respecting the territories situated outside the frontiers laid down in the present Treaty and the islands other than those over which her sovereignty is recognized by the said Treaty, the future of these territories and islands being settled or to be settled by the parties concerned.
The provisions of the present Article do not prejudice any special arrangements arising from neighbourly relations which have been or may be concluded between Turkey and any limitrophe countries.
Pursuant to these legal texts, Greece has lawfully, continuously, tangibly and peacefully exercised its sovereignty over all the islands, islets and rocky outcroppings included in its territory according to the abovementioned texts, without any contention on the part of another state, with the exception of Turkey’s unfounded, belated contentions.
The Imia case
On 26 December 1995, a Turkish cargo ship ran aground on one of the islets of Imia and its captain initially refused the assistance offered by the Greek authorities, maintaining that he was within Turkish territorial waters. He ultimately accepted being towed to Turkey by a Greek tugboat.
On 27 January 1996, some journalists from the Turkish daily Hurriyet lowered the Greek flag and raised the Turkish one on the Imia islets. The following day the Greek Navy lowered the Turkish flag and hoisted the Greek one. Turkish warships then proceeded to the area under the observation of Greek ships. Turkish warships violated Greek territorial waters, whilst Greek airspace was violated by Turkish fighter planes. The Turkish provocation culminated in the landing of Turkish troops on the second islet, in other words militarily occupying part of Greek territory. Several days later the crisis was defused with the withdrawal of both forces from the area and a return to the former situation.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry in verbal notes stresses Turkish sovereignty over the Imia islets and demands – in practical application of the grey zone theory – comprehensive negotiations on islands, islets and rocks in the Aegean, maintaining that their status is legally undetermined.
The legal status of the islands and islets of the Aegean is however crystal clear. Greek sovereignty over the Imia islets is clearly stipulated by international conventions: the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the 1932 Italo-Turkish Agreements and the 1947 Paris Treaty. More specifically:
• On the basis of the Lausanne Treaty (Article 15) Imia, along with the Dodecanese islands in their entirety, were given to Italy. According to Articles 12 to 16 it is apparent that Turkey ceded all sovereign rights over all the islands lying more than 3 miles off the Asiatic coast, apart from the Imbros, Tenedos and Rabbit islands. Consequently, Turkey also ceded all sovereign rights over the Imia islets, which lie 3.7 miles off the Turkish coast.
• The Italo-Turkish Agreements of January 1932 and the additional protocol of 28.12.1932, the territorial waters of the two countries between the coast of Asia Minor and the Dodecanese islands were defined. It should be stressed that the Imia islets were ceded to Italy by the Treaty of Lausanne, which is easily confirmed by the fact that in Point 30 of the additional Protocol, which was signed on 28.12.1932, they are referred to as one of the points under Italian sovereignty from which the median line dividing the territorial waters between Italy and Turkey shall be calculated.
• Under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty (Article 14), sovereignty of the Dodecanese including the Imia islets was ceded by Italy to Greece. Greece thus succeeded Italy as sovereign state over the Dodecanese.
The above legal argument is supported in practice by uninterrupted and peaceful Greek sovereignty over the Imia islets since 1947, which was never contested by Turkey until the 1995-1996 crisis.