Dr. Erdem Denk

Faculty of Political Science,

Ankara University



Although several of them have now been settled through either diplomatic or judicial means, there are still many island disputes in different parts of the globe which occasionally heat up and cause serious tensions. The Senkaku/Diaouyu Islands dispute between Japan and China/Taiwan, the Paracel and Spratly Islands disputes between China, Vietnam and other South East Asia States, the Kurile Islands/Northern Territories dispute between Russia and Japan, the Tokdo/Takeshima Islands dispute between Korea and Japan, the Abu Musa and Tunb Islands dispute between Iran and UAE, the Sipadan and Ligitan Islands dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, the Perejil/Leila Rocks dispute between Spain and Morocco, and finally the Kardak/Imia Rocks dispute between Turkey and Greece are the most widely known ones.[1] The present study will briefly examine the last one, i.e., the Kardak/Imia Rocks dispute, in the context of general characteristics of island disputes and then endeavour to make two modest suggestions regarding the status of these rocks bearing in mind, and in the context of, the general state of bilateral relations of Turkey and Greece.


The Kardak/Imia Rocks Dispute[2]

The Kardak/Imia Rocks have become a matter of dispute between Turkey and Greece as a result of a sea accident occurred in December 1995 just off these rocks and led to a series of mutual diplomatic correspondences particularly throughout January 1996. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that both of the parties have not only raised their claims in these correspondences but also configured their respective arguments. This is a simple result of the fact that these two tiny rocks, just like other similar disputed islands as will stressed below, hitherto virtually unknown to anyone presumably except local fishermen and sailors, let alone diplomats of any of these two countries. So, both Turkish and Greek diplomats put serious efforts in order to demonstrate the legal basis of their sovereignty claims.

In this context, Greece argued that the “Imia Rocks” were first ceded to Italy by Turkey in the 1923 Laussanne Treaty and this was confirmed later on by an “agreement” dated 28 December 1932 done consistent with a previous treaty and a letter exchange both done on 4 January 1932. Accordingly, Italy, in turn, ceded them to Greece by the Paris Peace Treaty in 1947. Turkey, on the other hand, argued that the “Kardak Rocks” had never been ceded by Turkey which means that they were, and are, still part of Turkey as the successor State of the Ottomon Empire which, as Greece also (implicitly) agrees, had an undisputed title on these rocks up until to the Laussanne Treaty. In terms of the legal arguments of the parties, there are a couple of key points that should be underlined. But, before proceeding anymore, it must be noted at the outset that that, although this point is explicitly referred to mainly by Turkey, formulation of the arguments of both parties suggests that the parties (implicitly) agree at least on the fact that the Kardak/Imia Rocks are only one of the dozens of islands/rocks (“geographic formations”) that share identical legal status (un)regulated by the very same international instruments.

Regarding the key points of the legal arguments of the parties, first of all, the exact scope of the expressions “dependent” and “adjacent” employed in the Lausanne and Paris Peace Treaties, respectively, with regard to islets to be ceded together with expressly listed main islands in the Dodecannese region is under special scrutiny of both of the parties. The main disagreement is whether these presumably interchangeable expressions cover the Kardak/Imia Rocks in particular and other “geographic formations” which share the same status in general. Interestingly enough, both parties argue that the “relative” distances of these rocks to their respective nearest undisputed islands/coasts are to be looked at in order to interpret these very expressions. This common approach is evidently ill founded, simply because being “dependent” or “adjacent” does not refer to, or recall, “relativity” at all. It simply indicates that some islets, whatever they may be, are seen as “dependent” or “adjacent” to some islands expressly listed. So, other factors such as geographical and/or historical connections, economical ties, security considerations, administrative regulations etc. must be taken into account in working out what the expressions “dependent” or “adjacent” means exactly and which islets are/can be covered by them.

Second, the legal existence/validity of the 28 December 1932 document signed between Turkey and Italy is also a very important and decisive discussion point between the parties. Indeed, since this document apparently shows the Kardak/Imia Rocks on the Italian side, taking into account it as a legally binding agreement would mean that these rocks were ceded to Italy, or then deemed to be on the Italian side, which would in turn mean that Greece has taken them over by the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. Turkey, however, challenges the legal validity of this document saying that the requisite legal procedures for the ratification of this document were not fulfilled particularly by Turkey which shows that it did not give (and has not so far) its consent to such a cession.

Finally, it must be boldly underlined that there are many other “geographic formations” in the region which have identically the same status with the Kardak/Imia Rocks. Indeed, almost the only point regarding this particular dispute on which both Turkey and Greece (implicitly) agree is the fact that international instruments supposed to (un)regulate the status of these two rocks in fact relate to dozens of others. So, any settlement would not only determine the “owner” of the Kardak/Imia Rocks but also clarify the status of many others.


Having briefly analysed the legal arguments of the parties, the importance of the Kardak/Imia Rocks may now be studied in the context of general characteristics of island disputes.


Basic Characteristics of Island Disputes

A closer look at island disputes in different parts of the world suggests that such disputes have some basic common characteristics.[3] First and foremost, almost all disputed islands/rocks are considerably small in size and, quite unsurprisingly, uninhabited. It is not possible to spot them even on regional maps used for daily purposes and they are (or “were”) virtually unknown to wider public. This itself demonstrates once basic fact (which has apparently changed in time as they are disputed now): these islands/rocks were of virtually no value at all at the time of the adoption of international instruments regulating/determining the sovereignty of islands and/or coasts in their regions. Indeed, they must have been deemed to be such insignificant that, or to put it more correctly, they must have not attracted any attention whatsoever that, their status was not referred to at all in potentially relevant international instruments. It follows that, since their status had not been explicitly addressed in such instruments, a dispute about their exact status has been “inevitable” as they have become “important” for the parties in time. Parties to such disputes therefore, unavoidably, put their full efforts in interpreting allegedly relevant general/vague provisions and/or expressions employed in potentially relevant instruments.

It then goes without saying that these islands/rocks have gained importance and have been noticed (if not “discovered”) as a result of other factors to a great extent independent from their own values. Indeed, most of the disputes (except -at least- the Kardak/Imia Rocks) referred to at the outset have come to the agenda as a result of various technical explorations and research reports suggesting that there might be oil reserves beneath these regions. So, determining maritime jurisdiction areas in these regions has suddenly gained immense importance for the coastal States concerned which in turn brought, inter alia, the ownership of these islands into the agenda. As is well known, notwithstanding the discussion regarding whether uninhabited islands may have EEZs and continental shelves,[4] it is generally accepted at least in principal that they have territorial waters. It follows that, since the “owner” of such islands would expand its maritime jurisdiction areas and thus have a remarkable economic advantage, coastal States have even since been attributing considerable value to them.

It must, however, be noted that the Kardak/Imia Rocks have a distinguishing character in this respect as they have come to the agenda accidentally in the full sense of the word and their (perceived) importance has relatively little to do with economic considerations/concerns. As noted above, there are dozens of “geographic formations” which share the same status with the Kardak/Imia Rocks and therefore a possible Greek sovereignty over (all of) them, coupled with a possible 12-miles Greek territorial sea in the Aegean Sea, would effectively bestow Greece the whole Aegean sea maritime areas and it would become virtually impossible for a Turkish ferry (let alone war ships) to navigate from Istanbul to Izmir without passing through Greek territorial seas. Furthermore, such a possibility would have implications as far as security perceptions of the parties are concerned. In short, the status of these two tiny rocks are of decisive importance actually in terms of maritime jurisdiction areas in the Aegean.


Be that as it may, turning back to the common characteristics of island disputes, it must be particularly stressed that the underlying political considerations of the parties have also considerably, if not decisively, affected the course of such disputes. Indeed, it should not be a coincidence that the general state of bilateral relations of the parties of almost all of the ongoing disputes referred to above is far from being “normal”. In other words, the island dispute in question is not the only dispute between the parties. Rather, they have many other “legal” and “political” disputes which overall lead to bitter relations in between them.

The situation is not different, and in fact particularly true, in the Kardak/Imia dispute. Indeed, notwithstanding the relative improvement achieved in recent years thanks to the so-called earthquake diplomacy, it is obvious that there are deep disagreements and even enmity between the parties. Historical perceptions, the Cyprus issue and the maritime disputes in the Aegean Sea are always shown as the causes, and indicators, of this rivalry. Nevertheless, one may even argue that there is, or at least used to be until recent years, a vicious circle and the general mood of bilateral relations is not only effected, or worsened, by such disputes, but it itself also added fuel to such disputes and worsened, if not characterised/caused, them. Indeed, particularly the Kardak/Imia dispute has been affected considerably from the general state of bilateral relations of Greece and Turkey right from the beginning.

So, needless to say, notwithstanding the fact that these disputes are obviously “legal” in character, they are highly politicised as well. Hence, it becomes almost impossible for the parties to settle such disputes at least in short the term and -arguably- for the present generation. This is not only because the parties, although genuinely to some extent, attribute too much importance to such islands, but particularly because any sort of détente becomes almost impossible in such circumstances. Any form of possible inter-governmental compromise (even its rumour) is much likely to attract serious public opposition as a “concession”, if not “betrayal”. Likewise, any possibility of third-party settlement, particularly including judicial settlement, is also approached quite cautiously as it unavoidably embodies the risk of total failure/“defeat”.

As a result, settling such “legal” disputes, therefore, seems quite impossible in the short term. So, the main aim/task of the present generations would arguably be limited with preparing a suitable climate in which the next generations may comfortably deal with such disputes and settle them


Two Modest Suggestions

It is therefore obvious that parties to such disputes should first endeavour to “normalise” their relations before dealing with highly politicised “legal” disputes such as island disputes. This is particularly true for Turkey and Greece which particularly need some more time in order to proceed with confidence building. In fact, it may easily be said that the two countries have achieved a lot in recent years in terms of establishing the foundations for a climate of good relations. Having said that, certainly there are still many things to be done in order to secure stable relations between the parties which will enable them (next generations?) to confidently work out an acceptable settlement for their highly politicised legal disputes. Indeed, Turkish-Greek relations are, however less fragile now, still far from being “normal” notwithstanding recent improvements. As has been suggested elsewhere, various (joint) efforts may well be made in areas of education, culture, economics, tourism and even politics. Apart from such general steps which would definitely contribute to rapprochement of the peoples of the parties, it would be argued that some symbolic steps may also be taken (by both or any of the parties) as far as specific maritime disputes in general and the Kardak/Imia dispute in particular are concerned. Such steps would not only show the good-will and sincere intentions of the parties (or the relevant party) for viable solutions, but also help creating a good climate of relations between the parties.

As stressed above, although the Kardak/Imia Rocks are only one of the disputed “geographic formations” in the region which share the same status, the destiny of the Kardak/Imia Rocks has much more importance than any other “geographic formation” in question. Indeed, one may even argue that the final decision (to be given either by a court or jointly by the parties) would to a great extent be affected by the possible status of these two tiny rocks. To put it another way, each party would to a great extent determine its respective tactics/policies/positions during the negotiations (either towards a final solution or a compromis) according to their possible implications with regard to these two rocks, which would make any progress quite slow, if not unlikely. Be that as it may, if any form of solution is reached at ever, the parties, and, more importantly, the wider public in each country, would simply look at the (eventual) status of these two rocks more than anything else. Having in mind the tension escalated considerably in early 1996 regarding their status, it would more or less be some sort of “concession”, if not “betrayal”, for the government which “lost” particularly these two tiny rocks.

Thus, in the context of the above-mentioned necessity for confidence building initiatives, it would be suggested that (both or any of) the parties may take a courageous step and declare that the Kardak/Imia Rocks should not to be seen as a disputed territory between the parties anymore and should simply be delineated as a sort of special joint/common territory (some sort of condominium). Since the Kardak/Imia Rocks are only one of the disputed “geographic formations” in the region as emphasised above, such a declaration should also stress that the status of other “geographic formations” that (originally) share the same status would not be affected from this action in any manner. So, Greece and Turkey may well keep negotiating the status of other “geographic formations”.

The parties may then erect some sort of peace monument or build some sort of tourist attractions on these rocks to the memory of their common history. Despite its symbolic nature, such a step would arguably not only have quite positive effects to the confidence building efforts between the parties, but also provide a very good and encouraging example for other similar disputes across the globe. Moreover, since the status of other “geographic formations” that share the same status would not be affected, the (would-be) owner of them would not “loose” anything by such a decision except the Kardak/Imia Rocks themselves the “real” value of which is far less than their symbolic meaning. Thus, in real terms, both parties would gain a lot not only because a group of rocks the “loss” of which would potentially cause serious headache for them vis-à-vis their own public would not be a “dispute” at all anymore, but also because such a symbolic step would have enormous contribution towards apparently desired good-relations between the parties. Finally, working out the status of other “geographic formations” would be much easier for the parties, as the wider public is arguably much less interested in their actual status (at least compared to that of the Kardak/Imia Rocks).

Alternatively, or in addition to this, since the main concern particularly for Turkey is the possible enlargement of maritime jurisdiction areas of Greece in case of a potential Greek ownership over such “geographic formations”, the parties, before engaging in any concrete negotiations (towards either settling their disputes in between themselves or preparing a compromis for judicial settlement), may declare in advance that such small “geographic formations” would not have any effect at all in determining respective maritime jurisdiction areas (particularly territorial seas) of the parties. Likewise, they may also agree and declare before commencing their negotiations that some sort of navigation corridors would be granted to Turkey and these “geographic formations” would be militarised irrespective of their (to be determined) status.[5] This would certainly ease the conduct of  negotiations, and, more importantly, make settlement much more likely.

In short, the parties would not only get rid of one of their disputes which is of considerable symbolic value particularly for their peoples, but also have the chance to eliminate their relevant political and security-related concerns to a great extent. As a result, the “disputed islands” issue, which is supposed to be strictly “legal” in character, would take return its “ordinary” form. Furthermore, Turkey and Greece would have the chance to improve their relations further which would in turn make it much easier (at least for next generations) to settle their remaining legal and political disputes.


* Printed in II. National Aegean Islands Symposium, Ýdris Bostan ve Sertaç Hami Baþeren (eds.), TUDAV, Ýstanbul, 2004, pp. 12-16.

[1] For detailed information about, inter alia, these islands and links to relevant articles, visit <>.

[2] See Hüseyin Pazarcý, “Différend Gréco-Turc sur le Statud de Certains Îlots et Rochers dans le Mer Egéé: Une Résponse a Mr. C. P. Economidés”, Extrait de la Revue Générale de Droit International Public, No 2, pp.353-378; Yüksel Ýnan & Sertaç H. Baþeren, Status of Kardak Rocks-Kardak Kayalýklarýnýn Statüsü, Ankara, 1997; Constantin P. Economides, “Les Ilots D’Imia dans la Mer Egéé: Un Différend Créé par la Force” Extrait de la Revue Générale de Droit International Public, No 2, pp. 323-352; Krateros Ioannou, “A Tale of Two Islets” Thesis, Vol. 1, No 1, pp. 33-42; and Erdem Denk, “Disputed Islets and Rocks in the Aegean Sea”, The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations, No XXIX (1999), pp. 131-155.

[3] For detailed study, see Erdem Denk, Egemenliði Tartýþmalý Adalar: Karþýlaþtýrmalý Bir Çalýþma (Kardak Kayalýklarý ve Spratly ve Senkaku/Diaouyu Adalarý Örnekleri) [Disputed Islands: A Comparative Analysis (Kardak Rocks, Spratly Islands and Senkaku/Diaouyu Islands Cases)], Ankara, Mülkiyeliler Birliði Vakfý, 1999, s. 196 vd.

[4] See Article 121/3, the 1982 UNCLOS.

[5] Latest news about the secret negotiations between the parties also suggest that the parties have already considered, and in principal agreed on, such an option.




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