Does 'Kanal İstanbul' spell the beginning of the end of the Montreux?

Faruk Loğoğlu writes: The issue goes far beyond Istanbul and concerns the whole of Turkey because the Kanal might pose a direct challenge to the survival of the Montreux Convention. The Kanal would create a duality, a two-headed legal system, easily open to disputations for one reason or another. In other words, by creating a duality in the applicable law/regulations, we will be exposing the Convention to questioning and demands for its change.

Faruk Loğoğlu

An initially striking facet of “Kanal İstanbul” (hereinafter referred to as the Kanal) is certainly its marketing title: the “crazy project”. For me, it is difficult to understand the correlation of something “crazy” with the sober concept of “project”, normally a product of sane knowledge and planning.  The two simply do not go together. But this oxymoron is already a clear sign that the Kanal is not the product of a well-studied undertaking reflecting national interests and priorities, but one stemming from domestic political considerations, driven by expectations of pecuniary gains and based on half-baked analyses. But let us leave this contrived inconsistency aside for now and move on to the core of our subject. 

Our principle theme here is the Kanal and its probable fallout on the Montreux Convention, the internationally binding instrument that governs the Turkish straits. But first let us recap the conclusions of a whole range of experts who have spoken about the potential damage and risks the Kanal could pose for İstanbul. This is necessary for comprehending the full picture of the pluses and minuses of the said project. For fairness, we should not forget that there are counter arguments by its proponents extolling the benefits of the Kanal.  

Here is a partial list of only the main objections to the Kanal. 

First, the Kanal could destroy Istanbul’s fresh water sources leaving the city waterless.  

Second, the earthquake risk of Istanbul might rise. In any case, a major earthquake, even if unrelated to the Kanal, will cause serious damage to the Kanal itself, causing a sweeping disaster on its own.  

Third, contrary to what the Environmental Impact Assessment (ÇED) report claims, at least 400,000 trees would be felled, destroying forests, fauna and pastures and increasing air pollution. Numerous plant species/communities and local animal and other living populations will face the risk of extinction. 

Fourth, with the proposed building of eight bridges across the Kanal, İstanbul traffic will be a total mess.

Fifth, the figure 75 billion Turkish liras pronounced in the ÇED report as the projected cost of the Kanal is not realistic. The cost will be a minimum 130 billion. As a matter of fact, official authorities are themselves constantly revising the cost upwards. At a time when the Turkish economy is experiencing serious structural stresses and the population daily faces bread and butter issues, the Kanal is an extravagant undertaking.  It is the wrong and wasteful allocation of national resources.   

Sixth, according to marine scientists, the ecosystem of the Marmara Sea would undergo radical change because the water temperature and the salt ratio are different from those of the Black Sea.  The industrial waste of Central Europe already polluting the Black Sea would be carried to Marmara, leading to its inevitable death.  

Seventh, dividing the continuity of the land mass toward the west, it could lead to security risks, making territorial defense more difficult.  

Finally, contrary to the assertions in the ÇED report, the historic venues in the Kanal zone could suffer substantial damage as a result of the massive construction activity that will last over a number of years.   

Thus, these clear and mostly irreversible negatives are more than enough reason for the prompt cancellation of this project. Knowledge and reason expressly command its termination.    

Why then is the Government so adamantly insistent on its realization? The suggested reasons are the minimization of traffic and reduction of accidents in the Turkish straits.  An additional reason expounded by the government is the expectation of supposedly high revenues to come from vessels that will presumably use the Kanal rather than the Bosphorus. There is, however, another unstated but powerful new factor at work surrounding the ongoing domestic debate on the Kanal. The issue has turned into a political showdown between the Government and the opposition. As the opposition raises its voice against the Kanal, the Government ups the rhetoric, declaring that “no matter what or who, the Kanal will be built”. And the public is watching this process like a tennis match, one with no end in sight.   

Now let us take an educated look at each of the validations for the project proposed by the Government. Note first that, contrary to the perception being cultivated by the Government, statistical data concerning traffic and accidents in the Straits tell us a different story. The fact is that both the traffic and accidents have actually decreased over time. Meanwhile, experienced seamen suggest that because of its projected depth and width measurements, serious accidents are more likely to occur in the Kanal than in the Bosphorus. 

Keep in mind that according to the Montreux Convention, Turkey cannot force captains of commercial vessels to use the Kanal when using the Bosphorus is virtually cost-free. Hence the traffic and accidents argument does not really hold water as the Kanal is likely to have negligible effect on the traffic going through the Bosphorus.   

On the other hand, in buttressing and emphasizing the priority of safety, it is also worth to note that Turkey has long been taking extensive and periodically updated measures to ensure secure passage through the Turkish straits.  

The Maritime Regulations of the Turkish Straits designed to provide life, property, navigation and environmental safety have been in force since 1994, last updated in 2006 in the light of the experiences gained.  

A complementary step has been the Traffic Separation Scheme, in force since 1995 in line with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), This is a set of internationally approved regulations which the vessels must obey as they navigate the Straits.   

As a third measure, again with the aim of increasing safety to the maximum level, Turkey established in 2003 Vessel Traffic Services (VTS), supported by high technology. 

The second validation for the Kanal is the expectation of high revenues from it. This supposition is perhaps the weakest link in the argumentation in defense of the Kanal.  There is no consensus even among the official authorities regarding the amount of income they hope the Kanal would generate. Yet what is certain and constant is that passage through the Bosphorus will always be cheaper and probably safer for commercial shipping compared to the Kanal. 

Our nation has already been burdened with lifelong debt resulting from miscalculations of supposed income from toll bridges and tunnels.  And now we face the same story with the Kanal. Huge resources to be spent with uncertain returns – that is poor judgment. In sum, as Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has said, opposing the Kanal is not a political stance, but an existential issue for Istanbul. 

True enough. Yet the issue goes far beyond Istanbul and concerns the whole of Turkey because the Kanal might pose a direct challenge to the survival of the Montreux Convention. The 1936 Montreux Convention and the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty are the two carrier columns of our nation, both founding documents and outstanding diplomatic successes of the young Republic. Lausanne is the title deed of our Republic while Montreux is the insurance of our national security. If one tampers with carrier columns, one puts the entire structure at risk.  

Let us all remember that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, sensing the approach of a new world war, wanted to bolster the country’s defense and national security.  To this end, Ankara engaged in intense diplomacy during the 1935 and 1936 with the aim of establishing full sovereignty over the strategically important Turkish straits. Turkey’s efforts bore fruit and in 1936 at the Swiss city of Montreux, the Convention was signed by the United Kingdom,  France, Japan, Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, the Soviet Union and Turkey, with Italy joining later.  

The Convention stipulates detailed and separate conditions regarding passage through the Turkish straits for both commercial and war ships, for both riparian states and third countries. It comprises both the Bosphorus and Çanakkale straits. With Montreux full Turkish sovereignty is recognized over Istanbul and Çanakkale Straits. The responsibility and authority of the execution and control of the Convention also belong completely to Turkey. Since its signature 86 years ago, the Convention has held up despite radical changes in the international environment, including in the law of the sea. It has helped keep peace and stability in the Black Sea, serving thus our national security and interests.

The different limitations on the passage of warships at times of war and peace remain critically important for Turkey. To appreciate its value, we only have to remember that as an astute diplomat, President İsmet İnönü skillfully used the Montreux Convention among other tools of diplomacy, to keep Turkey out of the inferno WWII.     

Today also Montreux maintains a delicate balance between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. For one thing, it keeps the Americans from having unrestrained military access to the Black Sea and allows Russia only limited access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. This circumvents a confrontation between the two super powers whether in our north or in our south. It is no secret that the U.S. wants to do away with the Montreux Convention to obtain full access to the Black Sea. Meanwhile the Russians would not necessarily be shedding tears over its demise.  

We should never forget the enduring Russian appetite regarding the Turkish straits. Toward the end of 1939, during the Moscow visit of the Foreign Minister Şükrü Saraçoğlu, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, after welcoming him warmly, said, “I hope you have brought the keys to the straits.” Saraçoğlu purportedly answered, “Unfortunately, Your Excellency! Mustafa Kemal took them along with him!” 

Now let us ask the core question of where exactly the danger to the Convention lies in connection with the Kanal project?  What does the Kanal have to do with Montreux? It is alleged that the two are unrelated and that Montreux would not be affected by the Kanal. Not quite so! Let us begin with the short riposte: commercial and military passages through the Kanal would be subject to the provisions of the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention whereas those through the Straits would be subject to provisions of the Montreux Convention. The Kanal would thus create a duality, a two-headed legal system, easily open to disputations for one reason or another. In other words, by creating a duality in the applicable law/regulations, we will be exposing the Convention to questioning and demands for its change.   

At this point, we need to dispel a misconstrued line of thinking that the restrictions brought about by the Montreux Convention for third country war ships on the length of their stay in the Black Sea and on their tonnage would still be in force and not be affected by the Kanal. This misconstruction stems from the assumption that the Montreux Convention itself would still be in force, unaffected by or despite the new conditions to be created by the Kanal. The issue is not whether or which provisions of the Montreux Convention would still continue to be valid. The issue is that the manmade canals are governed by the terms of the UN Law of the Sea and allows for the unrestricted passage of both commercial and war ships.  Montreux, on the other hand, recognizes special and exceptional sovereign rights to Turkey in regulating all passage through the Straits. In this connection, we must not forget that though Turkey is not a signatory of the UN Law of the Sea, Turkish diplomats succeeded in obtaining a unique and exceptional status for the Montreux Convention keeping it outside the domain of the Law of the Sea. Hence, actual and claimed conflicts between the two legal frameworks are therefore inevitable. The pressure will be for ending the exceptional status of Montreux. 

There is another venue for potential disputes to arise.  One highly publicized supposed gain from the Kanal is that the ships carrying hazardous material will be made to use the Kanal, not the Bosphorus. However, according to Article 2 of the Convention, Turkey cannot oblige anyone to use the Kanal if they prefer to go through the Bosphorus. Such a contingency would lead to open ended debates, entailing the very Convention itself

I would like to stress a critical point here about the difference between canals and straits. Passage of war ships from the canals in principle is free in times of peace, whether or not they lie within domestic waters.  This is because canals, according to the Law of the Sea, are at the same time are international waterways. This is corroborated by the relevant international court decisions. In other words, if Turkey claims that only commercial ships can use the canal, but not war ships, it would not be a defensible position in terms of international law. There could be challenges and law suits.   

One last concern to consider is the possible repercussions of the Montreux Convention debates and their impact on the Lausanne Treaty. Tampering with the Montreux colon could adversely affect the Lausanne colon. This is not a prediction.  It is only a precautionary call.  

In conclusion, let us shelve this crazy project and protect in perpetuity our sovereignty over the Turkish straits. Let us not create with our own hands an excuse, a pretext for the Americans, Russians and any others to challenge the validity of Montreux.  The keys to the Turkish straits are in safe hands, in the hands of Mustafa Kemal. Let us keep them there.     


Faruk Loğoğlu is a retired diplomat and a former deputy of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).