ANALYSIS - Meis Island's status according to UN Law of the Sea Convention

Treaties between states in regions with similar geographic features, int'l court, arbitration rulings, back Turkey's views

Prof. Irfan Kaya Ulger  | 06.08.2020 - Update : 08.08.2020
ANALYSIS - Meis Island's status according to UN Law of the Sea Convention

The writer is the head of the Department of International Relations at Kocaeli University Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences 


One of the longstanding disputes between Turkey and Greece is the status of the islands in the Aegean Sea according to international law. The parties hold different views on the nature of the problem and how it should be resolved.

Turkey acknowledges that the Aegean islands do have territorial waters but asserts that they do not give rise to any maritime jurisdiction with regard to continental shelf or exclusive economic zone (EEZ), adding that provisions in this regard only apply to specific cases. Turkey additionally argues that if a country is composed entirely of islands, these would give rise to areas of maritime jurisdiction, but that a continental country’s maritime jurisdiction should be based on the mainland, and not islands. Turkey does not see the dispute in the Aegean Sea as limited to the continental shelf. Territorial waters, flight information regions, airspace, EEZ, the status of uninhabited islets and rocks and, finally, violations of the islands’ demilitarized status must be addressed. This friction in the Aegean Sea must be resolved according to the principles of justice, but also in consideration of the balance between Turkey and Greece.

Greece, in all its disputes over the Aegean islands, cites the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Claiming on the one hand that it wants the provisions of the convention to be applied in these disagreements, it ignores on the other hand the decisions and case law of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that provide precedents with regard to similar disputes.

Last week, Turkey issued a “navtex” (notice to sailors), alerting that the Oruc Reis ship would conduct scientific research in the Meis Island region. Upon a counter navtex from Greece claiming rights in the region, Turkey voiced its official position on the matter in a statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy: “The argument that an island of 10 square kilometers, located only 2 kilometers away from Anatolia and 580 kilometers from the Greek mainland should generate a continental shelf area of 40.000 square kilometers is neither rational nor in line with international law.”

The dispute between Turkey and Greece over Meis Island is mainly due to their diverging opinions on jurisdiction over the islands of the Aegean Sea and their status under the UN maritime law. Greece argues that its islands, including Meis, have territorial waters as well as exclusive economic zone and continental shelf rights. While Greece often expresses similar views against Turkey, it has not been able to make the same claims against another country. To give an example, Greece made no mention of maritime jurisdiction resulting from its islands in its agreement on the Limitation of Maritime Jurisdiction Areas in the Ionian Sea with Italy on June 9, 2020. In the delimitation agreement with Italy, Greece did not assert that the islands, which are located between the two countries and whose sovereignty belongs to Greece, have any exclusive economic zone rights. The delimitation agreement was concluded between the parties on the basis of mainlands.

Greece strongly defends these arguments against Turkey when it comes to the islands in the Aegean Sea, even though it has not put forward any such arguments regarding the islands in the Ionian Sea against another country. In the official opinion of Greece, “The islands are just like the mainland. The islands, no matter how small, also have the rights of maritime jurisdiction, continental shelf, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. Therefore, these rights are valid for Rhodes as well as for Meis.” Greece claims that this view is universally valid. As a basis for this claim, it refers to a document known as the map of Seville, arguing that it is the only valid document in terms of maritime jurisdiction in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the face of the Greek claims, Turkey has put forward its views in line with international law and has not shrunk from taking the necessary steps. Turkey's Exclusive Economic Zone area in the Mediterranean increased to 189,000 square kilometers (73,000 square miles) with the Agreement on the Limitation of Maritime Jurisdiction signed with Libya on Nov. 27, 2019. Turkey’s determined stance, confirmed by UN maritime law and provisions by the ICJ, has thwarted the schemes of Greece and the West on the Eastern Mediterranean. Efforts at escalating tensions over Meis Island, in particular, are essentially futile, because, as explained above, the agreement signed with Italy on the Ionian Sea on June 9, 2020 so clearly confirms that Greek islands do not generate any exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

Continental shelf and exclusive economic zone

The origin of the jurisdiction dispute between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea is based on the difference of opinions on the scope and border of the continental shelf. The concept of the continental shelf, first raised by US President Harry Truman in 1945, refers to the underwater extension of a coastal state. In Article 77 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the continental shelf's inner limit is the point where territorial waters end, with the outer limit stretching out for another 200 nautical miles (230 miles) from this point. If the ocean floor is not within 200 nautical miles, then the outer limit can extend to a maximum of 350 nautical miles (403 miles).

On the other hand, it was clarified by a 1969 decision of the ICJ that the continental shelf existed without the coastal state needing to declare it (ipso facto) and that it had this right from the beginning (ab initio).

The concept of “exclusive economic zone,” which became part of the maritime law literature with the 1982 convention, denotes maritime jurisdiction that gives the coastal state exclusive economic rights on and under the water, on the seabed and in the subsoil within 200 nautical miles of the territorial waters baseline. The coastal state has rights over live natural resources, minerals and other resources in the exclusive economic zone. As a natural extension of sovereignty, the coastal state has the right to place all kinds of equipment in the exclusive economic zone and conduct scientific research there. The convention also imposed an obligation on the coastal state to preserve the ecological balance and the environment.

Meis island cannot generate maritime zone 4,000 times its geographical area

Greece claims that Meis Island has rights of continental shelf and exclusive economic zone. Based on Greece’s arguments, the island creates a maritime zone 4,000 times larger than itself. Is this situation legitimate in terms of international law? While the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does allude to islands having continental shelves, this is not a universal rule that is valid under all conditions. The ICJ has made several guiding interpretations in various rulings on the maritime jurisdiction of islands. On the other hand, the UN Law of the Sea Convention recognizes that if an entire country is an archipelago, it has the right to establish its maritime jurisdiction on the basis of its islands. Thus, it is not a rule to be applied under all circumstances, allowing a country with a mainland to establish maritime jurisdiction zones due to its islands. As revealed in many of the ICJ’s decisions, islands within the natural extension of the mainland do not have a continental shelf or exclusive economic zone rights. Moreover, the government of Greece has accepted this. In its agreement with Italy on maritime boundaries, it has not made any such claims for islands under its sovereignty in the Ionian Sea.

To date, the ICJ has made interpretations on disputes similar to that surrounding the island of Meis, that support Turkey’s views. The first such decisions to come to mind are the cases between the UK and France in 1977, Malta and Libya in 1984, and Nicaragua and Colombia in 2012. Therefore, it is simply not possible for Meis to have maritime jurisdiction stemming from either exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Agreements between states in regions with similar geographic features, as well as international court and arbitration decisions, support Turkey's position.

As a result, an equitable agreement can be reached in two ways: Either it will be accepted that the island of Meis generates no maritime jurisdiction, or that its rights in this regard, if any, will be delimited, making them very limited in scope. The map of Seville is an imposition on Turkey. Recognizing this lawlessness, Turkey, with its Maritime Jurisdiction Limitation Agreement with Libya, has demonstrated to international public opinion that it will always be endeavoring to protect its rights and interests.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

*Translated by Merve Dastan in Ankara Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.