GeoInsight: Turkey’s self-contradicting doublespeak on maritime delimitations – A sign of unreliability

If adhering to your (legal and political) arguments can be an indicator of any credibility, then Erdogan’s Turkey should have already been renounced as unreliable in the eyes of the international community.

Whether it be Hagia Sophia’s status or Turkey’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)-Continental Shelf (CS) claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, or even Ankara’s stance towards the West and Russia, Erdogan’s regime has been repeatedly contradicting itself while simultaneously taking up more maximalist positions. And all that, not over a period of years but over a period of a few months.

In his letter, dated 13 November 2019, to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Turkey’s permanent representative to the UN, Feridun Sinirlioğlu claimed that,

“the outer limits of the Turkish continental shelf […] follow the median line […] to a point to be determined in the west of 28°00’00″E, in accordance with the outcome of future delimitation agreements […] among all relevant States”.

He also claims that “Turkey has ipso facto and ab initio legal and sovereign rights in the maritime areas of the Eastern Mediterranean that are west of meridian 32°16’18″E” and that,

“the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf beyond the western parts of longitude 32°16’18″E should be effected by agreement between the related States in the region”.

A few months pass by and the aforementioned Turkish diplomat, in his letter dated 18 March 2020 to the UN Secretary General, claimed that he had “the honour to convey the geographical coordinates of the outer limits of the Turkish continental shelf” beyond the western parts of not only 32°E but also 28°E, “between Point F (34° 16′ 13.72″N – 026° 19′ 11.64″E) and Point E (34° 09′ 07.90″N – 026° 39′ 06.30″E) as agreed by the delimitation agreement between Turkey and Libya”.

Two things should be pointed out. Firstly, Fayez al-Sarraj’s non-elected Government of National Accord (GNA) does not represent all Libya (there is also the elected House of Representatives under Aguila Saleh that is also recognized by the international community), and secondly Libya is not among “all relevant states” when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean.

When it comes to what is considered a “relevant state” for Turkey, things get arbitrary. Cyprus for example is neither “relevant” nor a state but just an “Administration” that “cannot claim de jure and/or de facto jurisdiction or sovereignty” according to what ambassador Sinirlioğlu claims in his letters to the UN, the latter of which was addressed at the start of July.

The bottom line is that in just a few months, Turkey moved what was to be determined “among all relevant States” (in this case the western end of what it claims to be its EEZ-continental shelf in the Eastern Mediterranean) from western Cyprus (32nd meridian east) to the Greek island of Rhodes (28th meridian east) to the eastern shores of the Greek island of Crete (26th meridian east).

Taking things one step further, state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) rushed – before the start of June 2020 – to ask Erdogan’s regime for exploration permits in an area of 24 blocks unilaterally demarcated by Ankara between Rhodes and Crete, as published in Turkey’s official government gazette on May 30.

Just by looking at the maps of “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) and the Erdogan-Sarraj maritime delimitation MoU, one sees the far-fetched irredentist claims of nationalist naval officers such as Cem Gürdeniz (Mavi Vatan) and Cihat Yayci (“Libya’s Role and Effect on the Efforts to Limit the Maritime Jurisdictions in the East Mediterranean”) being now presented as the reactionary backbone of Turkey new state foreign policy.   

If one goes back a few months, Turkey’s changing positions become more prevalent. “Scripta manent”, so they say. So do the tweets of Ambassador Çağatay Erciyes, Director General for Bilateral Political & Maritime-Aviation-Border Affairs at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Up until July 2019, that is, approximately a year ago, Mr. Erciyes was publishing on Twitter maps of the Turkish claimed continental shelf’s western limit being close to the 28°00’00″E (south of the Greek island of Rhodes). Back in May 2019, not that long ago, Anadolu Agency was presenting the same map under the title “Most Rational Option in Eastern Mediterranean”. And back in Spring of 2019, when Ambassador Erciyes brought out a 26-page presentation entitled “Turkey’s off-shore activities in the Eastern Mediterranean & Maritime Boundary Delimitation in International Law”, there was no mention of a possible Turkey-Libya maritime delimitation agreement even though the case of Libya was actually cited in the presentation.

Nevertheless, in the span of less than a year, the “most rational option” for Turkey has now given way to a so-called Turkish EEZ-CS that runs to the west of Sirte, bordering Crete. It is in this context that Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to decide whether inhabited islands can generate zero or just reduced maritime jurisdiction areas. When Greece and Italy recently signed an EEZ delimitation agreement, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its leadership welcomed this development on the basis that it is delineating reduced maritime jurisdiction areas for a series of Greek islands in the Ionian Sea.

For the record, even a reduced EEZ-CS for large inhabited Greek islands such as Crete, Rhodes and Karpathos in the Mediterranean, would in essence nullify the Turkey-GNA maritime delimitation MoU that Erdogan and Fayez al-Sarraj signed back in November 2019.

If the island of Malta was given reduced effect according to the Libya-Malta continental shelf boundary delimitation of 1985 (a case mentioned by Çağatay Erciyes in his “Turkey’s off-shore activities in the Eastern Mediterranean & Maritime Boundary Delimitation in International Law” presentation of May 2019), then why should Crete or Cyprus get zero effect.

Because Turkey says so, would be an easy answer.

When Turkey signed a continental shelf delimitation “agreement” with the so called “trnc” back in September 2011, this “agreement” delineated maritime jurisdiction areas in the North, East and South of Cyprus. Now, circa 2020, Turkey prefers to claim that Cyprus (a member-state of the European Union that Ankara refused to recognize) has absolutely no maritime jurisdiction areas beyond its territorial waters. But if Malta for example or the so called “trnc” generate such areas, then why shouldn’t Cyprus as a whole do the same.

Because Turkey says so, would (again) be an easy answer.

A similar approach applies to how Turkey chooses to “read” the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “What does UNCLOS say?” ambassador Çagatay Erciyes wondered back in December 2019 in his presentation entitled “Addressing the Eastern Mediterranean Maritime Dispute and Unilateral Activities”, in an attempt to present Turkey’s maritime claims as pursuant to international law. What Mr. Erciyes failed to mention, though, is that Turkey is in fact not a signatory to UNCLOS.

“[…] due to the Aegean Sea dispute, Turkey refuses to sign and ratify the said convention. She is also a persistent objector to the rules of UNCLOS regarding the delimitation of maritime zones and the islands having maritime zones etc.”.

Thus wrote Ulaş Gündüzler back in 2013 in the Ankara Review of European Studies.

By George Skafidas, journalist covering foreign affairs, based in Athens, Greece.

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