Greece and Turkey, the two Aegean Sea neighbours, have a long tradition of confrontational relations. From the mid-1950s to the present, the two countries have been involved in a series of conflicts, some of which have escalated into major crises that have taken them to the verge of war. The main point of contention between the Greek and Turkish governments is the Aegean Sea. These problems are not only unresolved, but they also contribute to the region's ongoing instability and tense atmosphere. Several resolution efforts were made in previous years but failed. The purpose of this article is to identify the relevant law governing the areas of conflicts and to propose a possible solution.

The essence of the problem is such that the two sides have fundamentally different perspectives concerning the Aegean. It should be acknowledged that Turkey has not signed up to the Convention on the Continental Shelf nor the superseding United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), both of which Greece has signed and ratified. Turkey identified the inability of the UNCLOS to properly resolve exceptional geographical circumstances and the prohibition of reservations as reasons for its non-participation in the LOSC in a letter to the UN Secretary-General. The main reason Turkey refused to sign was the dispute with Greece over Aegean Sea delimitation issues. Turkey is one of the 16 countries which have not signed or ratified the Convention. Turkey believes that Greece regards the Aegean as a Greek sea and that Greece is trying to undermine Turkish security by controlling the Aegean disregarding Turkey's rights and interests in the Aegean. On the other hand, Greece is arguing that UNCLOS Articles are binding to non-signatory countries.

Considering that the aim is to review the Aegean maritime disputes on the basis of international law, it is necessary to examine the relevant law regulating the maritime areas.

UNCLOS - Articles of Interest

Territorial Sea

The expansion of territorial waters, it has become a contentious issue. Article 3, s.2 of UNCLOS states that:

"Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention".

In relation to Article 3, Greece has expressed its intention to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean sea, applying this article. However, until this day Greece retains a 6 nautical mile territorial sea due to the dispute with Turkey. The expansion of nautical miles from Greece could intensify the conflict with turkey and further destabilise the Eastern Mediterranean region.

On the other hand, the Turkish point of view is that because of the large number of Greek Islands, 12 miles of territorial waters will convert the Aegean into a Greek lake. Turkey argues that it will be locked out of the Aegean and confined to its own territorial waters as a result of this. Turkey also claims that Greece should not be allowed to expand its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea to 12nm and that doing so would result in a casus belli (cause of war).

The central issue in the Aegean Sea territorial sea dispute is whether international law requires a certain limit for specific areas in special geographical areas, and if so, what implications does this have for the Aegean Sea.

Continental Shelf

The term continental shelf is used as referring to the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas adjacent to the coast but outside the area of the territorial sea, to a depth of 200 metres or, beyond that limit, to where the depth of the superjacent waters admits of the exploitation of the natural resources of the said areas.

However, the criterion of 'exploitability' was highly criticised as being "unsatisfactory" and it was gradually rendered obsolete as a result of technical advancements. As a result, it was replaced by the more precise "width" criterion in Article 76(1) LOSC for determining the continental shelf's outer limit. In the absence of a delimitation agreement, the Aegean continental shelf has been another point of conflict between Turkey and Greece. The issue of the Continental Shelf has strained ties between Turkey and Greece in the past. Greece has requested the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with the following outcomes:

1) In Resolution 395, adopted on August 25, 1976, the United Nations Security Council urged Turkey and Greece to do everything possible to de-escalate tensions in the Aegean and urged them to resume direct talks to resolve their differences.

2) It urged them to ensure that these negotiations end in mutually satisfactory solutions. In a ruling issued on September 11, 1976, the International Court of Justice designated the Aegean continental shelf outside the territorial waters of the two coastal states as "areas in dispute" for which both Turkey and Greece seek exploration and exploitation rights.

Article 83 (1) of the Convention, as a result, is a compromise that states:

"The delimitation of the continental shelf between States with opposite or adjacent coasts shall be effected by agreement based on international law, as referred to in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, in order to achieve an equitable solution." Despite the differences in content, Article 83 does not introduce a new concept. However, any prospect of agreement or resolution has failed so far.

Regime of Islands

UNCLOS Article 121 states,

"Except as provided for in paragraph 3, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory."

For Greece, international law, particularly UNCLOS grants the islands the right to exercise sovereignty over their continental shelf and stipulates that the continental shelf between two countries must be established on a median line basis. As a result, each of the Aegean Sea's islands has its own continental shelf, and the median line can be used to describe the border with Turkey. For Turkey, the Greek islands do not have rights to exert jurisdiction on the continental shelf, as they are located on the Turkish continental shelf.

Maritime Boundary Delimitation

Maritime delimitation is one of the most important, although contentious, topics in maritime law. The East Mediterranean states took a leading role in the debate, citing the narrowness of the regional sea, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the relevant methods and factors to be considered, as significant obstacles to maritime delimitation. During UNCLOS III, arduous talks on maritime delimitation took place, and the East Med states found themselves in opposing interests. The limited extent of territorial sea delimitation, as well as the lower resource probabilities, made the median/equidistance line approach easier to apply. This is expressed in Article 15 LOSC and is part of customary international law. The doctrine of equitable principles is the fundamental norm of customary international law governing maritime boundary delimitation by agreement, in accordance with equitable principles, taking account of all relevant circumstances, so as to arrive at an equitable result.

Given the critical role of delimitation in maritime activities, including hydrocarbon operations, maritime boundary delimitation has been one of the most important topics for the East Med states. Greece and Cyprus supported the median/equidistance line because they saw it as the best way to ensure that their interests were properly protected. In contrast, against the scenery of the Aegean dispute, Turkey called for the equitable principles approach in order to take advantage of its long coastline and lessen the effect of islands.


Noting that the different positions were leading nowhere, Greece submitted the issue to the ICJ in August 1976, but Turkey refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the Court, which in the end declared itself incompetent. Since then, the maritime issue has remained and has been aggravated by territorial arguments.

As mentioned above, Turkey did not ratify UNCLOS and is a constant objector. In later articles it will be discussed whether an objector country as Turkey is bounded by UNLCOS and it will be analysed whether International law can propose a possible resolution or to have a mediating role in order to reach an agreement.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.