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Turkey: Proposed New Canal May Have Impact on Major Shipping Treaty

(May 27, 2011) On April 27, 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey announced a plan to relieve dangerously heavy tanker traffic in the Bosphorus Strait by creating a man-made canal through western Istanbul to serve as a new shipping route between the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea. According to news reports, the launching of the project is expected to generate international debate over the implementation of the agreement governing unfettered passage of Black Sea coastal countries’ ships through the Turkish straits – the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. (Navigation Treaty Raises Doubts over PM’s Istanbul Canal, HÜRRIYET DAILY NEWS (Apr. 28, 2011); Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, with Annexes and Protocol (Montreux, July 20, 1936), [1936] LNTSer 221; 173 LNTS 213, WORLDLII League of Nations Treaty Series online databas.)

The Convention, which has nine signatory states (Turkey, Bulgaria, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Japan (with reservations), Turkey, the former USSR, and the former Yugoslavia), entered into force on July 20, 1936. Under it, the Turkish Straits zone – the Dardanelles (Çanakkale Boğazı, in Turkish), the Sea of Marmora, and the Bosphorus (or Bosporous, Boğaziçi, or İstanbul Boğazı, “Istanbul Strait”) – were returned to Turkish military control. (Montreux Convention, U.S. Naval Treaty Implementation Program website, (last visited May 9, 2011).) The Dardanelles connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara; the Bosphorus links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. ([Map], TURKISHSTRAITS.COM, (last visited May 9, 2011).) The Convention regulates the passage of commercial and military vessels through the Turkish Straits, control that occasionally creates tension between Turkey and other signatory states, “particularly Russia, which says Turkey’s strict regulation of the use of the straits slows the passage of tankers.” (Navigation Treaty Raises Doubts over PM’s Istanbul Canal, supra.)

The Turkish newspaper TODAY’S ZAMAN noted that according to Turkey’s Ministry of Transportation, “the number of tankers passing the straits has reached alarming levels and risks of an oil spill would increase as there will be more ships going through the straits after the conclusion of Caspian and Black Sea oil exploration.” However, it added, “finding an alternative route for maritime vessels cannot be an automatic solution to the problem” because of the possible need to revise the Montreux Convention. (İstanbul Canal Project to Open Debate on Montreux Convention, TODAY’S ZAMAN (Oct. 8, 2010).) While one coastal country diplomat expressed confidence that the Turkish authorities would not take any measures to restrict the right of free navigation through the Straits, others expressed concern about the possibility of the tankers being forced to use the new canal instead of the Straits and to do so for a fee. (HÜRRIYET DAILY NEWS, supra.)

One Turkish columnist noted that the Canal Istanbul project is not a new one:

A new transportation canal to be built between the Black and the Marmara seas is a crazy project indeed, but there is nothing new to it. During his tenure as the mayor of the İstanbul greater municipality Erdoğan had voiced this dream project as an alternative to Bosporus transportation which was becoming more and more dangerous for the city. Even earlier there were plans to build a thinner canal in order to produce hydroelectricity utilizing water level difference between the Black Sea and the Marmara. (Kerіm Balci, Canal İstanbul and Other Crazy Projects of the Prime Minister, TODAY’S ZAMAN (Apr. 27, 2011).)