Giraffe: One more issue between Turkey and Greece

Fisherman İlker Özdemir was pushed back by Greek coast guard near Giraffe rock, where Greece is claiming maritime jurisdiction. (Photo: AA)

When one speaks of a giraffe, what first comes to mind is a lovely animal, the tallest living on land and the biggest among the ruminants. An important characteristic of the giraffe is the fact that it is the animal with the highest blood pressure and the strongest heart. But despite their high blood pressure, giraffes can turn their five-meter-long neck left and right without feeling uncomfortable.

The giraffe as part of Aegean disputes

We only became aware of the giraffe’s part in the Aegean questions between Turkey and Greece thanks to the bravery of fisherman İlker Özdemir earlier this month. A rock named “Giraffe” is apparently among disputed rocks over which Greece has claimed sovereignty together with hunreds of other rocks in the Aegean. In fact, it is even difficult to call it a rock. It is a tiny construction Greece has built by pouring cement in the open sea and erecting a lighthouse on it. Its total surface area is 9 m2 and its total length of coastal line is only 32 meters. It is situated at a distance of 6.4 miles to Semadirek and 14.2 miles to the Turkish mainland. Greece claims that this strange structure should create maritime jurisdiction areas like all other islands. In other words, it should have territorial waters, a continental shelf and an economic zone on its own. That is why a Greek coast guard boat tried to push back İlker Özdemir who was fishing in the vicinity of “Giraffe”. I could not decide whether to laugh or cry. Most probably, the Greek coast guards themselves did not believe in their own thesis, since they backed down when the fisherman stood his ground and insisted that he was fishing in international waters.

The Giraffe Cliffs, is a 9m2 cement construction built by Greece in Aegean Sea.

Unfortunately, Turkish-Greek relations are not as cold blooded as the giraffe. A small spark may light up a big fire in a very short period of time. During an TRT interview on February 10, Minister Çavuşoğlu reiterated Turkey’s call to Greece to stop militarising the Eastern Aegean islands in violation of the Treaty of Lausanne and the Treaty of Paris, adding that if this violation did not end, Turkey would question Greece’s sovereignty over those islands. Minister Çavuşoğlu also referred to two letters conveyed last year to the UN Secretary-General to register Turkey’s opposition to the militarisation of the islands by Greece. Minister Çavuoğlu’s remarks soon became a hot topic in the Greek media.

The spokesperson of the Greek Foreign ministry, Alexandros Papaiannou, lost no time in rejecting Minister Çavuşoğlu’s accusations, claiming that those views not only contradict the basic principles of international law but go beyond simple logic. Washington also reacted to Minister Çavuşoğlu’s remarks. In response to a question, the State Department’s spokesperson reaffirmed US support for the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, adding that there was no question of Greece’s sovereignty over its islands, but without commenting on the issue of demilitarisation. A similar but longer statement was made on February 13 by Peter Spano, the spokesperson of the external affairs division of the EU.

Letters at the UN

Actually, Minister Çavuşoğlu did not say anything new. Turkey has in fact been bringing the issue of militarisation of the Eastern Aegean Islands to the attention of the UN, NATO and the OSCE since 1976. The letters which the Minister referred to in the interview were delivered at the UN by Turkey’s Permanent Representative Ambassador Sinirlioğlu on July 14 and September 30 last year. The second letter by Ambassador Sinirlioğlu outlines, in six paragrahs of legal arguments and references to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) case law, how Greece has been violating international law.The letter also contains the reminder that, should the violation continue, it would call into question Greek sovereignty over the islands. We Turks sometimes consider ourselves to be slow-witted or at least slow to cotton on to developments. Perhaps, this time, our Greek friends have been slow to react.       

Militarisation of the Eastern Aegean Islands in violation of international treaties

Greece’s militarisation of the Eastern Aegean Islands in violation of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and the Treaty of Paris of 1947 is but one aspect of the complex set of issues concerning the Aegean between Turkey and Greece. However, it would seem that this is the question where Greece has the greatest difficulty in finding legal justification for her arguments. While Greece always points to the ICJ for the resolution of the Aegean disputes, she herself does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICJ on the question of the demilitarised status of the islands, having made this clear at the time of acceeding to the Court. She does not deny militarising the Eastern Aegean islands. Her pretext is the security threat she claims emanates from Turkey. This is a wholly political narrative. No legal justification can be found. The Greek letter provided in New York in reply to Ambassador Sinirlioğlu’s first letter resorts to arguments that have no legal validity to the effect that the Montreux Convention on the Straits has replaced the Lausannne Convention and has no provisions on the demilitarised status of the islands in question, that Tevfik Rüştü Aras, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, did not oppose the militarisation of the islands in a speech in parliament and that Turkey is not a party to the Treaty of Paris.

What causes Greece the greatest panic is the phrase used by Minister Çavuşoğlu in the interview; “we will keep following this up”. The Minister was probably referring to diplomatic initiatives vis-a-vis the states parties to the Treaty of Lausanne and the Treaty of Paris. This time Turkey will not remain on the defensive. Our case is solid. Provided we stick to legal means.

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