Aegean Peace: International Law and the Greek-Turkish Conflict

By Stephanopoulos, Constantinos | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Aegean Peace: International Law and the Greek-Turkish Conflict


Stephanopoulos, Constantinos, Harvard International Review


CONSTANTINOS STEPHANOPOULOS is President of the Hellenic Republic.

Greek and Turkish sovereign rights have been clearly fixed by international treaties for over half a century. The boundaries of the two nations are legally established, and the current state of tension reflects Turkey's attempt to overthrow this status quo. It is in the interest of the international community as a whole to uphold the present borders. Turkey's disregard for the international law on which the Greek position is founded endangers not only Greek-Turkish relations but the authority of the law itself. The successive liberation of the present territory of Greece was not achieved through wars of aggression, but rather through the recognition and vindication of a legitimate struggle by the Greek people to recover its freedom. A brief survey of the historical context of Greek-Turkish relations will be adequate to substantiate this claim.

A History of Contention

The liberation of Greece from four hundred years of Ottoman rule was achieved only gradually. In 1829, after eight years of struggle, an independent Greek state was finally recognized. Its borders, however, constituted only a small part of today's Greece and left large Greek populations under the Ottoman yoke.

In 1881, as per the decision of the Congress of Berlin, the Ottoman Empire grudgingly ceded the region of Thessaly and a part of Epirus to Greece. In 1912, a coalition of Balkan states comprised of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece undertook an armed struggle against the Ottoman Empire as a result of which it withdrew from the islands of the Eastern Aegean and the greater part of the Balkan peninsula--regions inhabited primarily by Greeks. Following a second Balkan war in 1913, this time amongst the former allies, Greece liberated the rest of Epirus, a large part of Macedonia, and Crete, which had revolted eight times in an attempt to unite with Greece.

After the First World War, Greece acquired Thrace and received a mandate from the Great Powers(the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy) to occupy the region of Smyrna in Asia Minor which was inhabited by dense Greek populations. A war between Greece and Turkey ensued in which Greece was defeated and withdrew from Asia Minor. Over one million Greeks of Asia Minor were forced to abandon their ancestral homes.

Moreover, after her defeat, Greece was forced to return a part of Thrace to Turkey. However, Greek sovereignty over the islands of the Eastern Aegean, whose population had been uninterruptedly Greek since ancient times, was confirmed with the exception of the Dodecanese islands, which were given to Italy, and the islands of Tenedos, Imbros, and the Rabbit Islands, located near the entrance of the Dardanelles, which were retained by Turkey. In order to avoid any future dispute and because of the impossibility of listing by name all the islets and rocks of the Aegean, the Treaty of Lausanne specified that with the aforementioned exceptions, Turkey would renounce all rights over any island lying further than three nautical miles from its continental coastline.

After the Second World War, Italy ceded the Dodecanese Islands to Greece under the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947. These islands, lying off the coast of Asia Minor and inhabited by Greeks, had been occupied by Italy since 1912. Greece succeeded Italy in all the islands it held until then.

The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 resolved all outstanding issues between Greece and Turkey. Accordingly the two great national leaders of Greece and Turkey, Eleftherios Venizelos and Kemal Ataturk, were able to establish a period of friendship between Greece and Turkey which was to last until the Cyprus issue arose again in the 1950s. At that time, the Greeks of Cyprus, who constituted 80 percent of the population, demanded the end of British rule and initiated an armed struggle to this end. Turkey, despite the fact that it had renounced all rights to the island of Cyprus with the Treaty of Lausanne, seized the opportunity to renew its claims on the island and to unleash a wave of persecution against the Greek minority living in Istanbul.

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