US Backs Greece in Dispute Over Turkey-Libya Maritime Deal

Photo Credit: Greek Navy

The US government continues to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the memorandum of understanding on sea borders signed by Turkey and Libya last November, calling it “provocative” and “counterproductive.”

The arbitrary demarcation of the two countries’ maritime borders violates Greece’s territorial waters as they have always been understood internationally. Additionally, Ankara does not recognize that islands have their own continental shelves and exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Earlier in the week, Ankara announced that Turkish drilling vessels will start exploring for oil in the delineated area of the Eastern Aegean which includes Greece’s territorial waters off the islands of Crete, Rhodes, Karpathos and others.

Turkey presented its own map (below) of the areas where its research ships will drill for oil on behalf of the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO). The demarcated areas violate the island nation of Cyprus‘ EEZ as well.

According to a Hellas Journal report, the US Department of State responded to an e-mail sent by the news organization regarding the legitimacy of the maritime border agreement between the two countries.

The State Department spokesperson responded by stressing that the illegal Memorandum of Understanding, from a legal point of view, affects the rights or obligations of third countries, such as Greece.

The US official reiterated a statement by State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Frank Fannon and Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt, that the islands do have their own EEZs and continental shelves.

The Hellas Journal submitted the following questions to the US Department of State:

Question: Last December you told us that “the announcement of the signed demarcation Memorandum of Understanding between Ankara and Tripoli (Libya’s  Government of National Accord, GNA) has increased tensions in the region and is unhelpful and provocative.”

Does your statement remain as it is?

Also: Today (yesterday), according to Anadolu (news agency):

The Turkish president said Ankara and Tripoli plan to promote co-operation in the Eastern Mediterranean, including exploration and drilling activities, to further benefit from natural resources.

As it is known, these activities will take place next to Crete.

What is your position on these illegal activities in Turkey and Libya?

Answer: “Our statement is still valid. You can use the following, attributed to a State Department spokesman:

While the United States generally does not take a stand on maritime disputes with other states, we consider Turkey’s actions to be counterproductive and provocative.

As a matter of long-term policy, we encourage states to resolve their disputes peacefully in accordance with International Law. In anticipation of the demarcation of the unresolved maritime borders, we call on all parties to show restraint and make every effort not to jeopardize or prevent a final agreement on maritime borders.

We note that Greece also has maritime claims in the area mentioned in the memorandum of Turkey and Libya. In this regard, we emphasize that the Memorandum of Understanding cannot, from a legal point of view, affect the rights or obligations of third countries, such as Greece.

We also note that, in accordance with International Law, as reflected in the Law of the Convention on the Sea, the islands have EEZs and continental shelves to the same extent as any other land.”

Cyprus’ stance on the issue

Former Cypriot ambassador to Washington Andreas Iakovidis, who attended the conference and signed the Convention on the Law of the Sea on behalf of the Republic of Cyprus, described the State Department statement as “correct and helpful.”

“It’s been right and it’s been going on for several years – and that’s definitely the law,” Iakovidis told Hellas Journal. Since 2004, the former ambassador has given a lecture every year on the status of the islands at the Rhodes Academy of Maritime Law, organized by the University of Virginia in collaboration with other academic institutions.

“There is no doubt about the validity of the Law of the Sea for the islands. Article 121, which has the agreement of Contracting Member States and the European Union, clearly states the status of the islands. These provisions are customary law and as such are binding on all States,” Iakovidis told the Cyprus News Agency, adding that the United States, under President Bill Clinton, had signed the Convention, but due to the reluctance of some members, has not yet ratified it.

Iakovidis noted that Article 121 stipulates that, “the territorial sea, the neighboring zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of the Convention for other terrestrial lands.”

The former ambassador also said “During the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in Caracas and New York, and during the preparatory phase in Geneva, Turkey and some other countries made great efforts to promote the adoption of their position. Their position is that islands do not have EEZs or continental shelves but only territorial waters.”

Iakovidis continued by stating “After much discussion, during which the Cyprus delegation was one of the protagonists – as seen in the legal history of Article 121, which was drawn up by the UN Secretariat – the Turkish position was rejected and Article 121 was adopted.”

The former ambassador further averred that this was one of the reasons why Turkey voted against the Treaty and continues to do so every year at the UN General Assembly, with the most recent occurrence of this on December 10, 2019.