100 Years Treaty of Lausanne - What Then?


Norman Paech, Professor of International Law and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Public Law


The middle of next year, July 24, 2022, will mark the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, but all eyes are already on the centennial in July 2023. This is a crucial date for Turkey, as the treaty stood at the cradle of the Turkish state - one could also say at the bier of the Ottoman Empire. For years, however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has questioned the treaty, saying it was unfair and a defeat for Turkey. He is essentially concerned with the revision of the border with Greece, with several islands in the Aegean Sea. It is about what is probably the last attempt to correct the division of the Ottoman Empire by the imperialist powers of France and Great Britain.


It effectively began with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and would later be concluded with a compromise between the two rival powers in San Remo in 1920. But it was not until August 1920, at Sèvres near Versailles, that the fate of the Ottoman Empire was sealed.The Allies had not only conquered Istanbul, the Italians were in Antalya and Konya, the Greeks in Smyrna1, the French in Cilicia. Earlier, in Erzurum and Sivas, the Turkish national movement had been formed under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, demanding a state with national borders. However, in Sèvres the Turkish delegation still had to sign the internationalization of the Straits and the secession of Eastern Thrace, the Aegean Islands (except Rhodes) and Smyrna with all its hinterland to Greece. Italy got the Dodecanese and Rhodes. Iraq with its oil wealth in the north around Mûsil (Mosul) and Hewlêr (Erbil), Palestine, Cyprus and Egypt came to England, while Syria and Cilicia were awarded to France. In Eastern Anatolia, an independent Armenian state was to be created, which caused considerable unrest among the Kurds. For this meant the separation of the provinces Erzîrom (tr. Erzurum), Qers (Kars), Bedlîs (Bitlis), Ezirgan (Erzincan), Mûș (Muș) and Wan (Van) with a predominantly Kurdish population. For Kurdistan, Articles 62-64 provided for a commission consisting of members of the British, French and Italian governments to work out local autonomy-which never happened and remains Turkey's open wound to this day.


Three years later, in Lausanne in 1923, this imperialist haggling found a final correction. The decisions of Sèvres were annulled, Eastern Thrace and the Kurdish territories originally assigned to Armenia were assigned to the new Turkish state now recognized under international law. Thus, although the main part of Kurdish territory came under Turkish rule, the Kurdish question itself was removed from the treaty. In addition, the treaty divided the Kurdish settlement areas among four states-Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Kurdistan now had no official status, unlike in the Ottoman Empire. It did not even become a colony - it became much less. Kurdistan was deprived of its historical and political identity, and its dismemberment and partition was secured under international law by this treaty. The head of the Turkish negotiating delegation, Ismet Inönü, did proclaim:"We have won a victory, because we have buried the Kurdistan question and the Armenia question in history - thanks to England and France."2 But at least the Kurdistan question is still an open wound of Turkey to this day.


But Erdoğan's attacks on the Treaty of Lausanne are not about Kurdistan. It is the Aegean Islands just off the coast of Turkey. By the end of August 1920, Turkish troops had decisively defeated the Greek army, Izmir was taken and the Greek soldiers left the country by sea. In Lausanne, however, the Allies awarded all but two of the islands off the coast, Imbros and Teneddos, to the Greeks. On January 23, 1923, Greece and Turkey had already agreed on a population exchange in a convention that now became part of the treaty. About 1.5 million Turkish nationals of Greek Orthodox faith were expelled to Greece and about 0.5 million Greek nationals who had converted to Islam had to move to Turkey. Articles 12 to 16 of the treaty detail the islands that would become part of Greece or remain under Italian occupation (Art. 16). The latter is no longer relevant with the lifting of the occupation; these islands, often only a few kilometers from the Turkish coast, also belong to Greece. The zone around the strait has been internationalized and demilitarized. Only a garrison of 12,000 soldiers in Istanbul was allowed. Not all the territorial wishes of the national movement were fulfilled - the region around Mûsil and Hewlêr became part of Iraq - but as a newly formed state recognized under international law, the treaty was a great success for Mustafa Kemal, which he underlined with the words: "This treaty is the document of the failure of a great plot that had been prepared against the Turkish nation for centuries and which they thought they had completed with the Treaty of Sèvres. This is a political victory that has no equal in the history of the Ottoman Empire."3


However, the treaty also contains provisions that go beyond the regulation of territorial boundaries. For example, Articles 37 to 40 of Section Three contain detailed provisions for the protection of minorities, their religion, their language, and their political rights, which have been systematically violated by all successive Turkish governments. None of Turkey's former treaty partners have ever addressed these violations and forced Turkey to comply with the treaty. So far, it is not clear whether Erdoğan's revision plans also address these articles. But regardless of the scope of such plans, any change to a validly concluded treaty requires certain conditions and procedures.


The Treaty of Lausanne Did Not Specify an End in Its Articles

Parties to the treaty were, in the order and wording of the treaty: "The British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania and the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian State" on one side, Turkey on the other. These parties to the treaty would all have to agree to a change. Even if Turkey managed to get the vast majority of states on its side, it would never succeed with Greece. Now, voices have recently been raised predicting the end of the treaty as it reaches its centennial. On what this opinion is based is unknown. The treaty itself did not stipulate an end in its articles. So far, no state party has withdrawn from the treaty, and no state has declared it invalid or null and void. Nor is there any apparent abuse or violation of the treaty that renders the entire treaty ineffective. The ongoing violations of the provisions on the protection of minorities, religion, language and political rights of the Kurds by the Turkish government and army, do not affect the validity of the treaty. Even if the Turkish government unilaterally terminated the treaty, the Greek islands would not be returned. Finally, international law knows of no rule or norm that international treaties that do not include a specific treaty duration in their provisions automatically terminate after 100, 200, or 500 years. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties does not provide for such automatic termination unless it is enshrined in the treaty itself.


However, if we assume that the treaty would expire in July 2023, it does not follow that the status of the Greek islands off the Ionian coast would change under international law. They would continue to be Greek territory. Only a bilateral treaty between Turkey and Greece could change that, and nobody believes in such a treaty.


If the situation under international law is so clear, the question arises as to what purpose such rumors serve. There is much to suggest that they have only a domestic political function, possibly to distract attention from manifest economic and political difficulties. A return of the Aegean islands to Turkey seems objectively impossible, since no Greek government would agree to it. The establishment of a Kurdish state, as seemed to be envisaged in the Treaty of Sèvres, would be legally possible, since no other state would have to agree to it. However, the time is not yet ripe for this, and the PKK has already renounced the establishment of a separate state since 1996. A status of economic, political and cultural autonomy would be in keeping with the spirit of the Treaty of Lausanne and the binding right to self-determination. But the Erdoğan government is not yet ready for this either. But there are also doubts as to whether the current maneuvering around the 100th anniversary of the treaty will lead to a solution and cure for the greatest of all Turkish problems.


This article was first published in the November/December 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.


1today: Izmir

2Cf. Hamato, Azad: Historische Weichenstellungen für die heutige Kurdenpolitik zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts, in: Hinz-Kardeniz, Heidi/ Stoodt, Rainer (eds.): Kurdistan, Politische Perspektiven in einem geteilten Land. Giessen 1994

3Cf. Steinbach, Udo: Die Türkei im 20. Jahrhundert. Bergisch-Gladbach 1996, p. 137