Revising the Montreux Convention
It is difficult to believe that, de jure, Turkey has almost no real control over the increasing number of vessels passing through its narrow straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention.
The terms of the convention were largely a reflection of the international situation in the mid-1930s, having served a large measure of Turkish and Soviet interests in terms of enabling Turkey to regain military control of the straits and assuring Soviet dominance of the Black Sea.
Since the signing of the 1936 convention, conditions have changed significantly; the sizes and contents of the ships, as well as risks, have changed greatly. The volume of traffic has increased beyond any estimation, making the Turkish straits one of the world’s busiest maritime choke points.
Under normal circumstances, the contracting parties would sit down and revise the relevant provisions in light of the new requirements. This has not happened to date, since there are deep-seated concerns in Ankara that once Pandora’s box is opened, you never know where it might end up. There is unwillingness among other parties, which had signed the convention to avoid any potential restrictions to free passage and incur the additional cost that may be brought on for ensuring the security of the waterways.
Maritime incidents pose a considerable risk to public safety and environment—more acute than other global transit chokepoints—for the entire length of the shores of the Turkish straits. Accidents continue to happen—141 since 2006. I recall vividly that the MT Independenta, a large Romanian crude oil carrier, collided with a Greek freighter in 1979 at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus and exploded. Almost all of the tanker’s crew members died. The risk of similar accidents has not receded, as was the recent case with the Maltese tanker that hit the waterfront mansion on the Bosphorus strait.
With so many parties and divergent interests involved, it is not easy to make even the slightest change in the straits regime. As a matter of fact, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in November 1994, has prompted calls for the Montreux Convention to be revised and adapted. However, Turkey’s long-standing refusal to sign the UNCLOS has meant that Montreux remains in force without further amendments. In 1994, the government adopted new “maritime traffic regulations for the Turkish straits and Marmara region to ensure the safety of navigation, safety of life and property and marine environment.”
Revising the Montreux Convention to keep up with changing times is urgent but very torturous. It is not only a legal or political matter between the contracting parties; more importantly, it involves the sustainability of several cities and more than 20 million people’s security and wellbeing. By no means is it comparable to the possible extra cost that some proposed bypass projects would entail.
The Trans-Anatolia pipeline and the Trans-Thrace Project have been dormant for several years now. A relatively new project is the 45 to 50 kilometer-long, 150 meter-wide Istanbul Canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea and thus, diverting some of the traffic in the strait.
However, the costs and engineering challenges could be huge. Also, diverting traffic from the Bosphorus—where there are no transit fees—to a canal that charges a transit fee will not be easily accepted by the shippers. As the straits are the only maritime outlet towards the world’s oceans of the Black Sea countries, all of them will have to be consulted on the new Canal Project.
It looks like for the time being, the status quo could still be the most preferred option. This does not mean that, while avoiding unilateral actions and measures, Turkey should shy away from developing a “win-win” proposition to address the safety and environmental problems it has experienced since 1936 under the Montreux Convention, without causing any serious damage to the interests of the contracting parties.
Mehmet Öğütçü is the chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club and Global Resources Partnership.