Cyprus Mail

‘Sovereignty’ versus ‘sovereign rights’

By Jean Christou

VARYING interpretations of comments made by UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide with regard to Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) caused not only controversy but some confusion on Wednesday.

From a legal perspective, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states: “In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting…”

Under the same laws, vessels from every other state have freedom of navigation and the right not to be hindered within another country’s EEZ.

What Eide did in his statements was try to explain that ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign rights’ had different meanings under UNCLOS.

Sovereignty bestows full rights, or supreme authority, on a country within its territorial waters, which stretch to 12 nautical miles.

Sovereign rights in an EEZ, which are much further out to sea, “no longer concerns all of [a state’s] activities, but only some of them”, according to UNCLOS.  In Cyprus’ case that would include the exploration and exploitation of its undersea natural resources.

Maritime legal expert Anastasios Antoniou told the Cyprus Mail: “Sovereign rights are not rights deriving from sovereignty but rights of specific functional purpose. The phrase ‘sovereign rights’ in Article 56 of UNCLOS suggests Cyprus’ rights are exclusive, not preferential over other states. The same term is used in relation to the continental shelf regime and makes clear that Cyprus may not have sovereignty per se over its EEZ, but it does have all other exclusive rights necessary for the exploration and exploitation of its hydrocarbons.”

Eide said no one had actually ‘exploited’ Cyprus’ EEZ, which is not in dispute.

“Because the economic zone is not sovereign territory, anybody can basically do anything there but for taking out the resources. But that’s a very technical issue,” the envoy said.

“It is a question of how much a violation has actually happened because many countries do not see seismic exploration as a violation as long as they don’t lead to exploitation”.

This is where Eide’s comments appear to contradict the Law of the Sea in that legally, it is the ‘sovereign right’ of a country to ‘explore’ as well as ‘exploit’ its resources, which would seem to imply that Turkey’s seismic vessel Barbaros was technically in violation of the law if it was carrying out explorations, though the ship had every right to simply sail around the island’s EEZ for as long as it liked.

Eide argued that Turkey’s activities were not a real problem because they would never actually lead to exploitation of Cyprus’ resources.

UNCLOS also says that “coastal states may however in their discretion withhold their consent to the conduct of a marine scientific research project of another state or competent international organisation in the exclusive economic zone or on the continental shelf of the coastal state if that project: (a) is of direct significance for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, whether living or non-living”.  The problem there is that Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS and does not recognise the Republic.

Also leaving the issue open to some interpretation would be the argument that the Barbaros was carrying out seismic surveys, which is a surface activity and did not involve any direct contact or violation of Cyprus’ natural resources. UNCLOS does not provide a definition for the word ‘exploration’.


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