How Turkey is legally entitled to explore gas in Eastern Mediterranean

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 12 Jul 2019

Ankara and the EU are at loggerheads over who has the right to explore newly-discovered gas fields.

Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz sets sail in Izmit Bay, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, to join the country’s exploration efforts in the region on June 20, 2019. ( Murad Sezer / Reuters )

Political tensions between Turkey and Greek Cypriot Administration (GCA) have escalated after Ankara sent another drilling ship to Eastern Mediterranean to speed up its gas exploration in the region. 

Turkey and the GCA hold conflicting views on the legal rights to explore the newly-discovered gas fields close to the divided island, which since 1974 has had two different administrations - one led by Turkish Cypriots in the north and another one led by Greek Cypriots in the south. 

In 1974, Turkey militarily intervened in Cyprus to prevent a change in the island’s political status quo following the Greek Cypriot military coup, which aimed to join the island with Greece, violating the founding principle of the internationally-recognised government of the Republic of Cyprus.

On Monday, the EU, of which the GCA is a member, accused Turkey of carrying out illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, backing the Greek Cypriot claims against Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Brussels has also threatened Ankara with swift sanctions.

“We call on Turkish authorities, once again, to refrain from such actions, act in a spirit of good neighbourliness and respect the sovereignty and sovereign right of the Republic of Cyprus in accordance with international law,” said Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief. 

But legal experts believe that Cyprus sovereignty is not so easily defined due to the island’s special political status, drawn up by Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom in the late 1950s during tough negotiations. 

Greek and Turkish delegates to the Cyprus peace conference sign an accord they arrived at after six days of negotiations on July 31, 1974 in Geneva after Turkey’s successful military intervention to the island. Foreign Minister Turhan Gunes of Turkey signs while British Foreign Office secretary James Callaghan stands at right.(AP Archive)

“The Republic of Cyprus [founded in 1960] is not a unitarian state. It’s a state with two communities and two regions, whose rights have been guaranteed by agreements [signed among Britain, Turkey and Greece,” said Enver Arikoglu, an associate professor of international law at Istanbul University. 

“Greek Cypriots have no sole sovereignty over Cyprus. Sovereignty emanates from the two peoples [Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots] of the island,” said Mustafa Lakadamyali, Turkish Cypriot Ambassador, representing the TRNC in Washington, DC.

As a result, Turkey does not recognise a solely Greek-led administration as the legal representative of the whole of Cyprus, and believes Turkish Cypriots have the right to explore gas fields as much as Greek Cypriots do, according to Arikoglu.

Since 2003, the Greek Cypriot administration has signed agreements with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel to determine their respective EEZs in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey does not recognise these agreements because Ankara believes the Greek-led administration does not represent all the inhabitants of the island.

On the other hand, in 2011, the TRNC issued a permit to Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to conduct explorations off the TRNC coasts.

Turkey is the sole country that recognises the TRNC as an independent country since 1983.

Besides Ankara’s protection of Turkish Cypriot rights concerning their stakeholdership in all of the island’s natural sources, it has also been opposing Greek Cypriot gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean based on its national continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) rights in the region.

“The Greek Cypriot unilateral actions do not only disregard Turkish Cypriots’ existing rights but also challenge Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean in the west of the Island,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Disputed territories

The Cyprus issue is one of the unresolved international conflicts in the world. The island is a disputed territory between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and their protector states Greece and Turkey.

“Because it’s a disputed territory, Turkey can undertake its [exploration] activities as much as other parties of the dispute. As a result, Turkey’s activities can not be described as illegal,” Arikoglu said. 

If a territory is disputed between two or more parties, each side needs to show to the other side and international community that it’s able to exercise its right over the disputed territory, Arikoglu analysed. 

According to him, Turkey’s drilling activities aim to show both the other side of the dispute and international community that the country stands for its protective role toward the island’s Turkish population granted by the Treaty of Guarantee in 1960. 

“From the very beginning, we, as Cypriot Turks, have called Greek Cypriots to act together on the issue of hydrocarbon [exploration in Eastern Mediterranean]. But Greek Cypriots have continued to take unilateral steps, disregarding our rights by completely excluding us [from the process],” Lakadamyali told TRT World. 

“If Greek Cypriots do not stop their activities in the region, we warned them that Turkish Cypriots, as being the equal shareholders of the island’s wealth, will take steps against whatever steps they will take. Now we do what we previously said.”

Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez talks during a ceremony to launch the 230-metre (750-ft) drillship 'Yavuz' to be dispatched to the Mediterranean, at the port of Dilovasi, outside Istanbul on June 20 2019.(AP Archive)

Similar cases: South China Sea and Corfu Channel

Arikoglu has exemplified his argument over Turkey’s exploration activities with two examples — one is from the South China Sea and another one is from the Corfu Channel, which is located in the Mediterranean. 

“In order to prove and confirm its right of navigation in the South China Sea, the US has been keeping a fleet in the region,” he explained. This is despite the protests of China, which claims sovereignty over the sea, just as the GCA is trying to do in waters off Cyprus, Arikoglu said. 

Like the GCA’s claims to gas fields of Cyprus, China also claims to own the sea’s nearly 11 billion barrels of oil and approximately 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, disregarding other littoral states’ right to the sea. Besides China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the sea and its natural minerals.

In total, the Levant Basin has gas reserves amounting to 3.45 trillion cubic metres as well as 1.7 billion barrels of oil, according to Zeliha Khashman, Professor of International Relations at Near Eastern University in the TRNC.

Arikoglu’s second example refers to the Corfu Channel dispute between Britain and Albania, going back to 1946, when British warships suffered damage while passing through the channel. London brought the case to the International Court of Justice to demand its reparations from Tirana. 

When Albania accused Britain of violating its sovereignty “by sending warships into Albanian territorial waters”, the court sided with London saying that “the United Kingdom had exercised the right of innocent passage through international straits”, confirming the right of navigation. 

In the current Cyprus gas dispute, there is also no such court decision to ban one side to navigate or explore gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arikoglu said. 

“As long as there is no court decision [agreed by both parties], one side’s plain claims can not be binding for another party,” he concluded.