At the end of November, after a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the head of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj, the two countries announced that they have signed two memorandums of understanding. According to Anadolu news agency, the MoUs are related to security and military cooperation, as well as maritime boundary delimitation aimed at protecting Turkish and Libyan rights based on international law.
The announcement prompted an international row, which has since escalated. Contradictory views abound. While Turkey says that is within its rights to protect its sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean, the governments of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel claim that the agreements with Libya violate the rights and sovereignty of others. Nevertheless, Turkey's parliament ratified the memorandums on 5 December and they came into effect on 8 December.
The MoU related to maritime boundaries basically draws a water corridor through the eastern Mediterranean linking the coasts of Turkey and Libya. This not only delimits Turkish and Libyan maritime zones in the Mediterranean, but also reaffirms, according to Turkish officials, the rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Greece described this as a violation of international law and insisted that it is null and void because it violates its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The government duly expelled the Libyan ambassador from Athens. Turkish officials insist in return that they have done nothing wrong and did not intend to harm any third party or violate its rights or sovereignty. Reports in the Turkish media quote Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying that the deal with Libya is neither a threat nor a breach of the rights of other countries.
Speaking at a meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Istanbul, President Erdoğan said that Turkey "will use our rights under international law and maritime law till the end in the eastern Mediterranean." He revealed that the MoU had been already sent to the UN.
Erdoğan criticised Greece's expulsion of the Libyan ambassador, describing it as an "international scandal". He told TRT Haber that Greece will "pay the price for its actions internationally." The Turkish President added that the maritime MoU stipulates that Turkey and Libya can carry out joint undersea explorations in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has the longest shoreline in the eastern Mediterranean, which makes it a natural candidate for having sovereignty over the region in accordance with international law. Furthermore, Turkey's guardianship of the Turkish-Cypriot government in Northern Cyprus gives it the authority to defend the rights of Turkish-Cypriots.
There is no international convention which provides a final, agreed upon delimitation of the boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Turkey has never signed nor agreed on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so is not bound by its terms. This is the convention which other countries are using to criminalise Turkey or bring it before a court.
Many legal experts have argued that the MoU has provided Turkey with "a legal framework to prevent any fait accompli by regional states." Hence, Greece's "attempts to appropriate part of the continental shelf that belongs to Libya, which is approximately 39,000 square metres in area, since 2011 by exploiting the political crisis in the North African country have been averted."
Interestingly, none of the countries in the region have agreed on their EEZs. None, therefore, can prosecute Turkey over alleged violations of such zones.
Speaking about the international law of the sea, Simon Henderson, the Baker Fellow and Director of the Bernstein Programme on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute, has said, "When the maritime distance between two countries is less than 424 miles, they must determine an agreed dividing line between their EEZs."
This is exactly the case with the Greece-Turkey issue, where the former claims that Turkey is violating its EEZ from the side of the island of Crete. According to the Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Centre and Global Energy Centre, Matthew Bryza, if Greece tried to delimit the EEZs of the islands in the Mediterranean individually, Turkey will end up "losing so many rights in the Mediterranean Sea."
Given that massive gas reserves have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean, it is clear that what is happening is an attempt to strip Turkey of its hydrocarbon rights in the region.
Following the call by Greece for the UN Security Council to condemn the MoU, the UN issued a statement on 11 December, stating that the international organisation takes no position on matters concerning member states' territorial waters.
"However, in certain areas," explained Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, "such as enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, particular attention needs to be paid to the interests of third parties. We are confident that all parties concerned recognise the need for continued dialogue on these sensitive matters." He added the standard UN proviso that "all differences should be resolved by peaceful means."
Meanwhile, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said that the matter was discussed by the bloc's foreign ministers. "[I]t was clear from our discussion that this document raises major concerns. We expressed our solidarity and our support to Greece and Cyprus and will continue doing that."
This statement suggests that the EU is getting ready to declare the deal to be against international law. As reported by Reuters, the EU statement said: "The Turkey-Libya memorandum of understanding on the delimitation of maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean Sea infringes upon the sovereign rights of third States (and) does not comply with the (UN) Law of the Sea." However, these claims are legally unfounded.
For its part, Israel has claimed that the MoU aims to undermine its project to build an undersea pipeline for exporting natural gas to Europe. Citing the Israeli, Greek, Cypriot and Italian MoU for the construction of the pipeline, a report published by the Israeli Public Broadcaster on Thursday claimed that the government in Ankara has already said that the planned Israeli pipeline infringes Turkey's own EEZ.
Last Thursday, the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, said that, "We will use every legal weapon, every international forum, every international organisation, to protect the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus and recourse to The Hague has that very purpose."
Beside the fact that no court has the power to sit in judgement against Turkey, Erdoğan has defended the Turkish-Libyan presence in the eastern Mediterranean. In doing so, he referred to the energy agreements between regional states which exclude Turkey. Turkey is trying to protect its rights, he said, while "the Greek Cypriot administration," Greece, Israel and Egypt are trying to exert sovereignty over the eastern Mediterranean.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told the Turkish parliament on Sunday that the MoU would help protect Turkey and Libya's rights against attempts to "eliminate" them from the area. "Many countries tried to eliminate Turkey, just as they did for [the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus]," he pointed out. Çavuşoğlu reiterated that this deal would undermine an anti-Turkey plot prepared by certain states in the region, which he did not name. The deal with Libya is an "important move against those who would seek to corner" Turkey. This was a reference to the energy agreements signed by Greece and Cyprus, as well as with other countries, including Egypt, Israel and Lebanon.
"Turkey has legitimate and legal rights existing in the eastern Mediterranean particularly to the west of longitude 32° 16' 18"E which have been registered at the UN," noted the Turkish Foreign Ministry. "It is only natural that Turkey will protect its rights in its maritime jurisdiction areas."
According to Article 57 of the UNCLOS, "the exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured." Given that the distance between Turkey and Greece is less than 400 nautical miles, the delimitation of the maritime boundaries and the EEZ can only be determined through mutual agreements.
Although, the UNCLOS is not ratified by Turkey, it is still the best available means to be considered when parties intend to settle a maritime dispute. The convention states that parties "shall settle any dispute between them concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention by peaceful means."
The UN's Farhan Haq urged Greece and Turkey to maintain a dialogue regarding the dispute over the MoU. Erdoğan said that Turkey is ready for dialogue with Greece but wanted to be clear that there would be no pipeline in the region without Turkey's approval. "We don't want to make enemies," he said.
Turkey, reported Anadolu, has called on regional countries to work in a collective manner regarding the distribution of hydrocarbon reserves, which are the real source of the dispute. However, its calls have fallen on deaf ears so far and some countries have attempted to isolate Turkey from the energy equation.
Under the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne covering the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey lost many of its islands. "We gave away the islands through the Treaty of Lausanne," said Erdoğan in 2016. "The islands [are so close to the mainland, that] if we care to shout, we will be heard on the other side… We are still fighting for all of these."
It seems that the war against the Ottomans did not end with their defeat in World War One and the subsequent Lausanne Treaty. Efforts have been made ever since to isolate Turkey, efforts which have been dictated by the colonial powers. They continue to this day, as illustrated by the overtly colonial response to the signing of the MoUs by Turkey and Libya.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.