An open letter to ambassador Tasos Tzionis, permanent secretary of the foreign ministry
On May 26, an article of mine was published in the Sunday Mail and in Alithia seeking to provide ordinary citizens with a guide on the basic terms used in conjunction with the exploration and the exploitation of the undersea wealth of Cyprus. The article also attempted to provide a simple resume of Cyprus’ and Turkey’s positions on this important issue.
On May 31, you briefed EU ambassadors in Cyprus on the state of play vis-à-vis Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on the background to the recent Turkish activity off the west coast of Cyprus. The thrust of your message was that Cyprus has been consistently acting within the rules prescribed under the International Law of the Sea, as codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and by customary practice. Turkey, however, is refusing to enter into any discussion with the Republic of Cyprus, with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable arrangement to the problem of delimitating the maritime boundaries between Cyprus and Turkey and, in the event of a failure to reach an agreement, seeking the resolution of the conflict by referring the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), or any one of the other venues, prescribed under Unclos. As a consequence, Turkey’s activities in Cyprus’ EEZ are illegal and they should be terminated forthwith.
On June 1, Turkey indirectly responded to the positions taken by Cyprus through a statement made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the Turkish National Security Council. He has been reported as saying that Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean are absolutely legitimate and will continue uninterrupted. In addition, he underlined Turkey’s commitment to protect the interests of the Turkish Cypriots, as long as the Greek Cypriots refuse to involve them in the exploration and the exploitation of Cyprus’ undersea wealth.
Inevitably, the positions taken by Cyprus and Turkey raise the question: who is correct in claiming legitimacy and compliance with international law and who is wrong?
Given Cyprus’ unequivocally declared commitment to respect international law and to comply fully with all the rules emanating there from, I would respectfully suggest that Cyprus (perhaps jointly with the European Union) should formally invite Turkey to enter into discussions for the purpose of delimitating the dividing line between the Cypriot EEZ and the corresponding Turkish EEZ.
As these discussions are not likely to arrive at a mutually acceptable arrangement, an advance undertaking should be given by both parties to jointly refer the dispute to the ICJ, as provided by Unclos, and to abide by the decision of the court once it is issued. Provided the appeal for a judgement on the issue is filed jointly by both countries, the fact that Turkey is not a party to the convention is not an obstacle. Furthermore, the court is likely to attend to the matter on a priority basis, if requested to do so, given the peace and stability threat looming in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the meantime, the government of the Republic of Cyprus should establish a Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone Development Board, which Turkish Cypriots should be invited to join, not merely to deprive Turkey of the argument that she needs to interfere in Cyprus’ EEZ to protect the interests of Turkish Cypriots but because the Cyprus state genuinely cares about all its citizens and wishes to effectively address their concerns in this area.
In my opinion, there is no conflict between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots in the area of exploiting the undersea wealth of Cyprus. On the contrary, exploiting this wealth could be the catalyst that will induce and will facilitate the reunification of Cyprus. If Turkey fails to respond by accepting Cyprus’ invitation, it will become readily apparent who means business and who is taking the world for a ride.
Christos P Panayiotides, regular columnist for the Sunday Mail, Cyprus Mail and Alithia