A conflict of sovereignties

Oil tanker (picture Greg O'Beirne)

An unusual article, but a good one, in the First Post by Claire Berlinski worries about the possibility of an oil tanker accident in the Bosphorus, the sea passage between Europe and Asia that runs through the heart of Istanbul. The oil boom in the Caucasus has seen traffic through the straits increase substantially, and with it the risk of a collision

An oil tanker carries thousands of tonnes of oil, if not hundreds of thousands, and could cause a devastating explosion in the wrong circumstances. But the Turkish government cannot keep them out of the centre of the city.

An international convention signed in Montreux in 1936 guarantees the right of passage to merchant shipping between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, so that these Turkish waters are not treated like normal territorial waters elsewhere in the world. Control of the straits has long been contested internationally and freedom of passage through the Dardanelles was included as point 12 in Wilson’s 14 points of January 1918.

What this means now is that the Turkish government cannot impose new safety rules on ships that are transiting the straits. To require the use of trained and experienced pilots, for example, which is common in other congested shipping zones, is forbidden here. Such are the consequences of a convention.

But what of Turkish sovereignty? Is this treaty not a violation of it? Well, yes it is, but that’s what happens to countries that lose wars: demands are made on them subsequently. The dependence of many Black Sea nations on shipping through the straits would otherwise leave Turkey in a position to impose a stranglehold. The Montreux convention protects them.

But can the convention be changed? It would be in the interest of Turkish sovereignty for improved safety provisions to be added, but equally it is in the interest of other countries that they should not be. Let Turkey pay for the costs of any clean-up, they might say. And no-one is entitled to second-guess them.

The people who would like the world to be divided neatly into national sovereignties have to face the facts of geography. Different national sovereignties will have interests that are starkly in conflict, and compromises have to be found. The international conventions that manage those conflicts and express those compromises have to be agreed by all. That is what the protection of national sovereignty means. Even if there is pollution or devastation as a result.

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