Cyprus Takes Turkey to Court Over Maritime Violations

petitions the Hague to safeguard its offshore drilling rights as pressure mounts between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey

As tensions over offshore energy resources continue to simmer between Cyprus and Turkey, the former has elected to further safeguard its rights in the EEZ by petitioning the International Court of Justice in the Hague – effectively upping the ante. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has said that the island nation is committed to protecting its sovereign rights through every legal mean possible, noting that “Our recourse to The Hague has that very purpose”.

“We have said that we will use every legal weapon, every international forum, every international organisation, to protect the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus and recourse to the Hague has that very purpose”, said Anastasiades.

The ICJ has the power to issue binding decisions on countries that recognise its jurisdiction. This isn’t much of a gamble for Cyprus, as the EEZ is recognised by all EU members.

Cyprus has granted multinational companies licenses to drill for oil and natural gas in its exclusive economic zone. Turkey asserts that parts of the EEZ have been wrongfully claimed and instead belong to either their continental shelf or to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, which is only recognised by them.

Meanwhile, the EU has been prompted to suspend talks with Turkey in concern over comprehensive air transport agreements, as well as freeze any high-level diplomatic dialogue due to the presence of two of Turkey’s drill ships in the Cypriot EEZ. Sanctions were levied against those directly involved in the drilling. Now, Cyprus is responding by taking Turkey to court.

Risks and Rewards

Anastasiades has announced that notices of Cyprus’ intentions to deliver the petition to the Hague were presented for delivery at the Turkish embassy in Athens, but not accepted. “So it was sent another way”, he said – by fax. “There is proof that it was received, so that gives (Cyprus) the right to recourse”.

After Cyprus filed at the ICJ, Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Christodoulides called on Turkey to accept their invitation and join them at the ICJ to settle the issue once and for all. Filing unilaterally is an unusual method, albeit not without precedent. Because Turkey did not accept the mandatory procedure, Cyprus was ultimately forced to file in this way. Without Turkey’s consent to go to court, however, the case cannot currently proceed.

Though Cyprus does have a strong legal defence, this lawsuit is not risk-free. Akel party leader Andros Kyprianou believes that Turkey can go to court via two different routes. One option is for the country to accept the court’s general jurisdiction, which it has so far not elected to do. Turkey can also choose to ask the court for an opinion, but this method would require the approval of the UN General Assembly or the Security Council. Under this process, the court’s opinion would not be legally binding for Turkey but would still be politically useful for Cyprus. It is unlikely that Turkey will cooperate either way, which effectively stalls the case.

This isn’t the first time Turkey has been taken to court over maritime borders. In 1976, Greece instituted proceedings over the Aegean Sea continental shelf. At the time, Greece asked the court to declare that the islands in the area be entitled to their own portion of the continental shelf, as well as determine the limits of those maritime boundaries between Greece and Turkey. Provisional measures pending the court’s final judgement were also requested, so that neither state could explore or research the shelf without each other’s consent.

Greece did not exactly win the case, with the court instead deciding that no such measures were required. And because Turkey denied the competency of the court, it was ordered that proceedings must first contend with the question of jurisdiction. Two years later, the court found that they did not in fact have the jurisdiction to handle the case, which Greece had initially assumed applied based on the General Act for Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (Geneva, 1928) and the Greco-Turkish press communiqué of 31st May, 1975. Similar upsets may yet leave Cyprus empty-handed should their case proceed.

Cyprus’s capital, Nicosia, is the last divided capital in the world. Cyprus’ recent petition aims to bring Turkey to court over disagreements on whether parts of the EEZ belong to Turkey. Copyright: Ingus Kruklitis /

Turkey Bites Back

Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the country would protect its ships in the region by any means necessary, adding that Turkey does not wish to engage in conflict while naming it as the guarantor of Turkish-Cypriot rights. “We have done everything to find a solution, the Greek Cypriot side does not want an agreement”, Cavusoglu said, reiterating the Turkish position that revenues from hydrocarbon exploration need to be shared via a joint committee for all Cypriots. “We promoted this to the Greek Cypriots, Greece, the EU, the UN, everyone, but they don’t want cooperation hence I will send in my ships.”

Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Ersin Tatar weighed in on private broadcaster CNN Türk on December 8th, saying that the balance in the Mediterranean has changed and pointing to a new pact between Turkey and Libya. “The Greek Cypriot side comes to such a game that they will lose what they have. The agreement with Libya has changed all balances. A new map has emerged”, Tatar said.

Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency reported that Turkey’s refusal to recognise the EEZ is based on international laws of the sea which compares islands to other countries’ mainlands and factors in distance, location, and relative size to judge the extent of their continental shelf. Coincidentally, Turkey does not always recognise those very international maritime laws for itself; a recent pact with Libya has set new oceanic borders between the two countries and claimed huge swathes of the Mediterranean sea – cutting out Greece almost completely.

“This [claims of Greece and Greek Cyprus] is done through the rights of small islands such as Meis and Crete. Under international law, the continental shelf of a tiny island cannot be a demand for exclusive economic zones”, said Tatar, adding that the frozen conflict might end in a permanently split Cyprus.

“Currently, in their [Greek Cypriot] minds, these negotiations are based on a federal partnership. We aim to maintain the existence of the Turks in the north under the constituent state”, Tatar said. “They [Greek Cypriots] are putting trapped agreements in front of us. Our desire is to have the majority of Turks in the property and population in the northern part of Cyprus.”

“What we cannot give up is that right to guarantee of Turkey”, he added. “We know very well what the Greek Cypriots want. Mustafa Akıncı and his colleagues think that these guarantees can be changed by another mechanism. You cannot force anyone to marry, this business has been spoken [of] for 50 years in Cyprus”, he noted, referring to ongoing peace talks under UN auspices.

Cyprus and Greece have strongly criticised the new memorandum of understanding between Turkey and Libya, asserting that it reflects a distortion of international law and has no legal standing. A spokesman for the Greek Foreign Ministry, Alexandros Yennimatas, said that Turkey was not acting in a neighbourly manner. “The signing by Turkey and Libya of a memorandum of understanding cannot violate the sovereign rights of third countries. Such an action would be a flagrant violation of the International Law of the Sea and would produce no legal effect”, Yennimatas said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Misotakis raised the issue at the recent NATO summit in London, dryly noting that Turkey and Greece have their differences.


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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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