Greek-Turkish relations are on a very negative and dangerous course. The most recent signs give little scope for optimism, as Turkey’s latest letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations and its most recent agreements with Libya exacerbate the already dystopian prospects of relations between the two countries.
Turkey’s letter, sent via its permanent representative to the UN, Feridun Sinirlioglu (one of the neighboring country’s top and most reasonable diplomats, who was also engaged in the last round of exploratory talks with his Greek counterpart), contained a series of points that are easily refuted by the Greek side. Let’s take a look:
On the 1923 treaty
In the letter, Turkey claims that the “main objective” of the 1923 Lausanne and 1947 Paris Peace treaties was not, as Greece claims, “to establish permanent boundaries and territorial legal titles to the states concerned.” The “overall objective,” per Turkey, was “to end the state of war and re-establish general peace and friendly relations.” This objective, therefore, shifted the focus of the treaty onto the demilitarization of the eastern Aegean islands.
Like every peace treaty that shapes a territorial status quo, however, the Lausanne Treaty is secondarily about establishing peace and primarily about defining boundaries between the warring sides and assigning territory to them, thus also addressing the matter of restoring a lasting peace.
This is, after all, why it is characterized as an objective agreement whose principal purpose is that it has erga omnes results, meaning that it can also be invoked by and is binding for non-signatory parties. The same is the case with the Paris accords, which have similar characteristics to the Lausanne Treaty.
The letter goes on to refer to the Greek argument that these treaties adhere to the principle of the stability and finality of the territorial regimes established, which have a permanent character even if the treaties themselves do not. The letter, therefore, questions why the demilitarization foreseen does not have equal permanence as the territorial regimes.
We have repeatedly stressed that demilitarization is, by its nature, a temporary regime established for the sake of peace and security, after the end of hostilities for one or both warring parties with the aim of preventing a resumption of hostilities. And also with the aim that the term will cease being in effect once a friendly climate is established between the parties formerly involved in hostilities.
In the case of Greece and Turkey, this shift in climate took place with the Treaty of Friendship signed between Eleftherios Venizelos and Kemal Ataturk in 1930, which removed fears of a resumption of hostilities.
With regard, now, to the Lausanne Treaty’s Convention for the Straits, which provided for the demilitarization of the Dardanelles, along with the Turkish islands of Gokceada (Imbros), Bozcaada (Tenedos) and Tavsan (Lagouses), while on the Greek side demilitarizing the islands of Limnos and Samothraki, we need to stress that this convention was replaced in full by the Montreux Convention of 1936, overriding the provisions of the Lausanne pact.
The fact that it does not contain a provision for the demilitarization of the Greek islands but does for the Turkish ones does not really matter because an agreement that has been annulled cannot produce a legal result. And this is something that the Turks agreed to in the 1930s.
The right of defense
The letter to the UN secretary-general goes on to contend that the “cession of territory was made conditional on a fundamental restriction on the territorial sovereignty of Greece: the demilitarization of the islands in question.”
This is fundamentally untrue. Territorial sovereignty is not subject to conditions except when these are clearly defined and arise from a clear reference to such commitment. This is not the case in the peace treaties mentioned above.
Sinirlioglu willfully disregards the fact it is the inflammatory rhetoric from senior Turkish officials that has made Greece respond in a moderate manner, which is a far cry from the menacing Turkish language.
It should be emphasized that the Greek argument that the militarization of the islands is a form of pre-emptive self-defense, or anticipatory self-defense, does not fully correspond to the meaning of the term. The term has been used to justify the military action by a state against a third state prior to an attack by the latter.
In the case of Greece, the fact is that there has been preparatory activity, given the presence of the Fourth Army across the Aegean, with an amphibious capacity which Turkey seems intent on developing further. It is, however, not a case of pre-emptive defense but rather of actions designed to fortify the islands in order to counter a possible attack from the neighboring country.
Sinirlioglu’s letter, finally, calls for a comprehensive settlement of disputes between the two countries, in line with Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations. He also urges Greece to give up its ostensibly hostile political rhetoric and come to the table of negotiations in order to reach a solution to all problems.
Sinirlioglu willfully disregards the fact it is the inflammatory rhetoric from his superior, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other senior officials that has made Greece respond in a moderate manner, which is a far cry from the menacing Turkish language.
The Turkey-Libya memorandum
Let’s take a look now at the second manifestation of Turkey’s growing provocations. Turkey and Libya’s Tripoli government last week announced they had signed a memorandum on exploration for hydrocarbons, following the maritime demarcation of the East Mediterranean signed three years ago. The full details of the recent deal have not been made public.
The memorandum prompted Athens into action as it was a first indication that the 2019 agreement is alive and will soon produce effects. The development was outside Greek calculations given the long silence during which the memorandum remained inactive.
The United States also reacted, pointing out to Libya the obligations deriving from the provisions under the roadmap issued by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which stipulate that the preliminary government cannot sign new agreements that disrupt the country’s external relations or entail long-term obligations.
All that in light of the provisional character of the government, whose tenure has long expired, as well as the opposition of Libya’s eastern-based Parliament, which rejects the Turkey-Libya memorandum.
Athens views the Turkey-Libya memorandum as illegal and baseless, as it pertains to a sea area that overlaps with Greece’s potential continental shelf/exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
It has nevertheless been registered with the UN and it is seen as valid in the dealings between the two parties involved. Parts of it are incongruent with the Greece-Egypt EEZ agreement. However, due to the fact that although both agreements have been legally finalized but not implemented in practice (by means of actual exploration or exploitation of the area’s energy resources), there has been no actual conflict between the two agreements as of yet.
Hence, the new Turkey-Libya memorandum for the first time creates the conditions for a conflict in the overlapping sea areas designated in the two agreements. It also practically challenges the continental shelf/EEZ claimed by Greece, because were the new memorandum to be activated, it could affect areas that either overlap with the Greece-Egypt agreement or belong to the areas claimed by Greece. Any of that would add to the tensions between Greece and Turkey.
Change of course
I believe it is time for a change of course in Greek-Turkish relations. Tensions between the two countries, which are increasing by the day, must make way for a peaceful settlement of disputes and other issues. Should the tensions and the daily provocations continue, an armed incident cannot be ruled out.
The only solution is a constructive dialogue between the two countries. And if that fails to yield fruit, the two countries will have to jointly refer their differences to the International Court of Justice, which alone has the competence to give binding and final solutions to such disputes.
Meanwhile, the dispute to be submitted to The Hague court must certainly concern the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea and the rest of the East Mediterranean, which is the bone of contention between the two countries.
Should this dispute be resolved, I believe that the climate would be substantially improved, giving the two countries a better shot at reviewing any other issues. These are, in any case, not insurmountable and they would be solved with relative ease by states that can approach them with a sense of moderation and good faith.
Christos Rozakis is an emeritus professor at the University of Athens.