Over the last months, a Turkish survey vessel, “HayreddinBarbarosPasa”, escorted by Turkish warships, has carried out seismic surveys within the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) of Cyprus on two occasions. In particular, ‘Barbaros’ conducted seismic surveys in a maritime area in the west of Cyprus falling partly within Cyprus’ continental shelf/EEZ and Greece’s claimed continental shelf. In January 2019, ‘Barbaros’ entered the Cypriot maritime zones once again and performed seismic research in an area straddling between offshore blocks 1, 8, 9 and 12 issued by the Republic of Cyprus. It is worth mentioning that Cyprus has granted hydrocarbon licences to oil companies ENI (Italy) and TOTAL (France) for blocks 8 and 9. Cyprus protested for both incidents by sending a letter to the UN Secretary-General.
Prior to analysing the ongoing situation, a short review of the legal regime of the waters under consideration is necessary. According to customary international law and the Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (‘LOSC’) a coastal state maintains an inherent right to a continental shelf, which extends up to a distance of 200 nautical miles (‘nm’) measured from the coast. In addition, a littoral state is also entitled to claim an EEZ of a breadth of 200nm. In these zones, the coastal state enjoys exclusive sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the natural resources, either living or non-living, in its seabed and subsoil. Consequently, no other state can set forth assertions over the natural resources in another state’s maritime zones. Nevertheless, in both the continental shelf and the EEZ the freedom of navigation shall not be hindered as in those waters, in essence, the freedom of the high seas applies. This is a trade-off aiming at striking a balance between the viewpoints of the great maritime powers on the one hand (which were reluctant to concede expansion of state jurisdiction over the high seas) and the smaller states on the other hand (which sought extended maritime rights in order to safeguard their offshore natural resources).
The Eastern Mediterranean conundrum
The predicament in the waters surrounding Cyprus goes back to 2003 when Cyprus concluded an EEZ delimitation agreement with Egypt (Cyprus penned two more delineation agreements with Lebanon in 2007 -yet to be ratified- and Israel in 2010). Turkey holds a long-standing position according to which islands facing longer coastal fronts should have diminished rights in terms of generating maritime zones; as a result, Turkey does not recognise the rights of the Republic of Cyprus to a continental shelf and its capacity to claim an EEZ around the island.
Further, the Turkish government argues that the breakaway regime in northern Cyprus, namely the self-proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” -established in a territory which has been occupied by the Turkish Armed Forces since 1974 and is deemed invalid by the UN Security Council (Resolutions 541/83 and 550/84) and the International Court of Justice (Kosovo Advisory Opinion 2010, para 81)– is eligible to lay claims with respect to the island’s underwater natural resources. Turkey and the putative state in northern Cyprus granted oil concessions to TPAO (the Turkish national petroleum company) as regards the entire maritime space around Cyprus, in conflict with the Republic of Cyprus’ claims based on the LOSC and customary international law and despite the fact that the Turkish coasts do not project in some of the claimed sea areas. Moreover, Turkey concluded a continental shelf delimitation agreement with the secessionist entity in northern Cyprus.
Notwithstanding the freedom of navigation according to which the Cypriot authorities cannot hamper the “Barbaros” from traversing its waters, the conduct of research operations is in breach of both international law and the Cypriot legislation by virtue of which such unauthorised actions constitute criminal offences.
As the LOSC stipulates that ‘States shall have due regard to the rights and duties … and shall comply with the laws and regulations’of the coastal state in the EEZ, the latter, namely the Republic of Cyprus, is entitled to apply and enforce its pertinent legislation on the members of the crew and the company owning ‘Barbaros’, viz. the Turkish Petroleum Company (‘TPAO’) or any other company providing assistance to the execution of such unlawful acts.
It is worth recalling that ‘Barbaros’ carried out illegal operations within the Cypriot maritime zones in 2014, while in February 2018 the Turkish navy prevented ‘SAIPEM 12000’, a drilling vessel operated by the Italian oil company ENI from conducting drillings on behalf of Cyprus in Block 3 of the Cypriot continental shelf/EEZ. The European Council condemned the foregoing illicit actions. Over the last few years, owing to its strained relations with Russia, the European Union (‘EU’) has been seeking diversification of its energy sources; to this end, the EU is poised to support any of its member-states, which have the potential to become energy suppliers, Cyprus being one of them.
Given the soaring needs for additional energy supplies, tensions over sea waters, where vast reserves of hydrocarbons lie, will inevitably be occurring. In the present case, the Turkish seismic surveys within the continental shelf/EEZ of Cyprus are not in conformity with international law, namely the yardstick according to which interstate controversies should be dealt with. Furthermore, the infringement of the Republic of Cyprus’ sovereign rights within its maritime zones poses a serious threat to security and stability in the region. A more rigorous response by the international community is required so as to thwarting further entrenchment of such illegitimate actions that, inter alia, impede Cyprus from exercising its inalienable sovereign rights over its natural resources and put at stake the aspirations of the EU to diversify its energy sources.