Turkey and Greece resume talks to resolve maritime disputes

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Representatives of Turkey and Greece attend a meeting as part of the bilateral talks on the maritime disputes in Istanbul, Turkey January 25, 2021. (Reuters)
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Plans for resuming discussions foundered last year over Turkey’s deployment of a survey vessel in contested Mediterranean waters and disagreements over which topics to cover. (File/AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2021

Turkey and Greece resume talks to resolve maritime disputes

  • Crisis sparked by Turkish energy exploration vessel working in disputed waters
  • Turkey faces potential EU sanctions over its energy exploration

ANKARA: Turkey and Greece on Monday held talks aimed at resolving maritime disputes, the first exploratory talks held since 2016.

Bilateral relations have been under particular strain since last year, when Turkey sent an energy exploration vessel to disputed waters near Greek islands. The move led to a crisis, with EU leaders threatening sanctions.

The two NATO members held 60 rounds of talks, described as exploratory rather than official, between 2002 and 2016.

Experts cautioned against having high expectations about any immediate success from the talks, which resumed after a years-long hiatus.

Dr. Zenonas Tziarras, researcher at PRIO Cyprus Centre, said the exploratory talks were not negotiations as such and, therefore, no agreement was expected.

“They aim to explore the intentions and positions of the two parties as well as set the agenda of the actual negotiations,” he told Arab News. “Much will depend on whether they can agree to limit the agenda to the issue of maritime zones, such as continental shelf, exclusive economic zone and perhaps territorial waters, leaving items that Turkey wants to add - like demilitarization of the islands - out.”

He said that although Turkey initiated the talks, they had been scheduled for last summer and got sidetracked by the Greek-Turkish crisis. “Turkey has made this move because, just like Greece, it sees the talks as a mechanism for de-escalation that allows it to focus on other problems and a projection of ‘good behavior’ in light of the new presidency in the US.”

He added that Turkey was trying to convince the West, including the US and the EU, that it remained a committed Western partner.

“However, these are tactical moves that aim to appease harsh reactions to Turkish foreign policy from the EU and the US, such as more sanctions, and allow Ankara to reap more benefits from these relations.”

Greece wants to limit the talks to rival interpretations about the delimitation of maritime boundaries under the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Turkey is not a party to.

But maritime delimitation talks could take a long time as neither side appears ready for compromises that could cost them popular support at home.

“We will attend with optimism but zero naivety,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a parliamentary session, referring to the disagreements with Turkey over maritime borders.

Turkey also intends to discuss a range of other long-running and thorny issues, such as the demilitarization of Greek islands or sovereignty of certain rocks. It accuses Greece of illegally deploying troops on some islands.

The two countries almost came to blows in 1996 over the sovereignty of an uninhabited Aegean islet.

“If there is a convergence of interests and an agreement on the agenda, the two sides can either solve the issue politically or refer their dispute to the International Court of Justice,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the International Center of European Formation, told Arab News. “The process will be a long and time-consuming one.”

The talks follow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dialling down his confrontational rhetoric toward the EU, emphasizing his willingness to open a new chapter in relations with the bloc.

“I would judge the success of these talks if both parties decide on the continuation of talks,” Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul think-tank Edam, told Arab News. “But it is important that these talks serve as an insurance policy against any potential escalation in the East Med.”

A NATO defense ministers meeting in February and an EU summit in March also serve as an additional source of leverage over the talks between the two neighbors.

Tzogopoulos was pessimistic about a breakthrough but optimistic about a joint understanding of the need for some bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

“For now, Greece counts on calmness in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to concentrate on its post-COVID-19 economic recovery and the absorption of EU funds. Turkey, for its part, is also looking for calmness in its interest in recalibrating its relations with the EU as well as with the new American administration.”

The exploratory talks in Istanbul coincide with intense discussions about potential EU sanctions against Turkey over its energy exploration in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Brussels pledged to enlarge a sanctions blacklist with more names.

A controversial agreement from 2019 between Turkey and Libya over the maritime borders in the Mediterranean could also be jeopardized by the exploratory talks.

The agreement delineated the maritime borders between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus.

It was criticized by the EU, which described it as a serious breach of international law, but is likely to be used as a bargaining chip against another deal that was signed last August for the partial demarcation of maritime boundaries between Greece and Egypt.

Tzogopoulos said that Greece would rely on its agreement with Egypt and that Turkey would turn to its agreement with Libya if a formal dialogue on maritime zones started.

“Some zones covered in the two agreements do overlap, whereas other zones remain undelimited. So, a potential settlement requires compromises by the two countries as well as the participation of other countries of the Mediterranean in talks.”

Young activist released, but guilt by association fears grow among Indian youth

Updated 25 February 2021

Young activist released, but guilt by association fears grow among Indian youth

  • Disha Ravi was charged after sharing a protest manual with farmers demonstrating against India’s government
  • A court granted bail to the activist associated with Greta Thunberg on Tuesday citing ‘scanty and sketchy’ evidence against her

NEW DELHI: The recent release on bail of young Indian climate activist Disha Ravi has brought some relief, but fears are growing over an increase in guilt by association toward other young Indian activists, her lawyer and other rights advocates claim.
Ravi, an Indian associate of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, was arrested in the southern city of Bengaluru on Feb. 13 on sedition charges for distributing a document to help farmers who have been demonstrating against India’s new farm laws. Police said the manual contained action plans for organizing protest violence. 
The protests of tens of thousands of farmers, who say the new laws would leave them at the mercy of big corporations, have been one of the biggest challenges faced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Ravi’s manual was shared on social media by Thunberg, who earlier this month faced a backlash from Indian authorities for expressing solidarity with the protesting farmers.
While a court in Delhi granted bail to Ravi on Tuesday citing “scanty and sketchy” evidence against her, other activists and the 22-year-old’s lawyer are pointing to the increasing danger of guilt by association.
“The constant gaze on who you are, what you do, there is guilt by association,” Ravi’s lawyer and family friend R. Prasanna told Arab News on Thursday.
“There is a widening gap that without any sense of discretion cases are being lodged and attempts to incarcerate people just because you don’t like somebody making the comments,” she said.
“The state and its machinery are not able to distinguish between the acts which may amount to disaffection and acts and activities which may be just advocacy,” Prasanna said, adding that taking an unpopular position against the government on a law does not render one “anti-national.”
She added: “One could have 101 differences with your elected government but still you could love your country.”
Women’s rights activist Poonam Kaushik said that with Ravi’s case “the government is creating a sense of fear among youth and their parents.”
Kaushik, secretary-general of the Progressive Women Organization, told Arab News: “The bail to Disha is a relief but the larger message that the government wants to send is that anyone who criticizes the government will be put behind the jail.”
She added: “In the last few years, we see many people associated with human rights, civil society, academics have been put behind the bars under the draconian laws for challenging the narrative of the government.”
Data released by Delhi-based news website Article 14 earlier this month shows that the number of sedition cases during Modi’s six years in power has nearly doubled.
“(Since 2010) 96 percent of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticizing politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014,” Article 14 reported.
Over a third of those who faced the charges made critical or derogatory remarks against Modi and other key leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party.
While the BJP says that criticizing the government is not sedition, cases such as Ravi are not about dissent.
“Opposing government or leaders is not sedition but becoming a part of a conspiracy to defame India and show her in poor light would not be considered dissent,” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News.
“If you were helping anti-India forces to plan strikes or organize demonstrations to oppose the government, it would definitely be crossing the line,” he said.
For Bangalore-based political analyst Prof. Sandeep Shastri, there is a larger question following the ruling in Ravi’s case.
“When the judge says that the evidence is scanty and limited, it raises the question whether dissent is going to be looked at from the lenses of what authorities see right and what they see as wrong,” he said.
“In a democratic country like ours, the right to dissent is fundamental, the right to be critical of anyone in power is fundamental.”

Pakistani, Indian militaries agree to stop firing in Kashmir

Updated 25 February 2021

Pakistani, Indian militaries agree to stop firing in Kashmir

  • Pakistani authorities say Indian has made more than 13,000 violations of the cease-fire accord in the past 18 years
  • India also alleges large-scale cease-fire violations by the Pakistan army

ISLAMABAD: Rival neighbors Pakistan and India have pledged to stop firing weapons across the border in disputed Kashmir, promising to adhere to a 2003 accord that has been largely ignored, officials from both sides said on Thursday.
If indeed implemented, the move would be a major step in defusing tensions in the highly militarized Himalayan region, and open a possibility for broader detente between the two nuclear-armed powers.
Artillery, rockets and even small arms fire have been regularly exchanged between troops on opposite sides of the border, killing hundreds since the original cease-fire was signed.
This time the two militaries themselves are making vocal commitments, with senior generals reaching an understanding over a hotline on Wednesday, a joint statement said.
“Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing” along the frontier which separates Kashmir between Pakistan and India, it said. “Existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilized to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding
The two South Asian neighbors have a long history of bitter relations and Pakistani authorities say Indian has made more than 13,000 violations of the cease-fire accord in the past 18 years. India also alleges large-scale cease-fire violations by the Pakistan army.
Since gaining independence from British rule in 1947, they have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir, which is divided between them and claimed by both in its entirety. Both sides often exchange fire in Kashmir and civilians are caught in the crossfire whenever such violence erupts. Dozens of people are killed every year in the violence.
But relations were further strained between them in 2019, when Pakistan shot down an Indian warplane in Kashmir and captured a pilot in response to an airstrike by Indian aircraft targeting militants inside Pakistan.
India at the time said the strikes targeted Pakistan-based militants responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 40 Indian troops in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.
Pakistan said there was no militant camp and the Indian planes dropped bombs in a forest.
Since then, a peace process between Islamabad and New Delhi has been on hold. But military experts from both countries were optimistic about the new agreement.
In India, Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, who was head of the Indian military’s Northern Command from 2014 to 2016, welcomed the move, calling it “a significant, positive development given there has been steep escalation in the border skirmishes in last few years.”
In Pakistan, retired army general Talat Masood said he believed Washington and other world leaders had helped in reducing tension between Pakistan and India, adding that peace was in the best interest of both countries.
It was unclear what promoted two two militaries to initiate contact over the hotline, but Pakistan has been urging the international community to urge India for resuming dialogue with it to ensure peace in the region.
However, Pakistan wants India to reverse a 2019 move under which New Delhi divided the Indian-administered part of the Muslim-majority Kashmir into two federally governed territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — touching off anger on both sides of the frontier.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training anti-India rebels and also helping them by providing gunfire as cover for incursions into the Indian side. Pakistan denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to Kashmiris who oppose Indian rule.
Rebels in Indian-administered Kashmir have been fighting Indian rule since 1989. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.

UN says 41 Europe-bound migrants drown in Mediterranean

Migrants and refugees from different African nationalities wait for assistance aboard an overcrowded wooden boat. (AP)
Updated 25 February 2021

UN says 41 Europe-bound migrants drown in Mediterranean

  • At least 160 people have died attempting to cross from Libya to Europe since the start of 2021
  • The North African country has been a hotspot of migration since the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi

CAIRO: At least 41 people drowned over the weekend when their boat capsized in the Central Mediterranean, the UN said on Wednesday, the latest shipwreck involving migrants fleeing conflict-stricken Libya and seeking better life in Europe.
The UN migration and refugee agencies said in a joint statement that the dead were among at least 120 migrants on a dinghy that left Libya on Feb. 18. The shipwreck took place two days later, it said.
A commercial vessel rescued the survivors and took them to the Sicilian port town of Porto Empedocle in Italy, they added.
The tragedy started when the dinghy took on water about 15 hours after the migrants embarked on their perilous voyage, the UNHCR said, citing testimonies from survivors. Within hours, at least six people fell into the sea and perished, and two others drowned while attempting to swim to a boat spotted in the distance.
Later, the commercial vessel Vos Triton arrived, and attempted to rescue survivors in what the UNHCR described as a “difficult and delicate operation.” Many others died during the rescue operation, it said.
Only one body was recovered, and the missing included three children and four women, one of whom left behind a newborn baby who made it to Lampedusa., it said.
The shipwreck was the latest along the Central Mediterranean migration route, where about 160 Europe-bound migrants have died since the beginning of 2021, the UN agencies said.
In the years since the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, war-torn Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Italy either on their own or after being rescued at sea.
Thousands have drowned along the way. Others were intercepted and returned to Libya to fall “victim to unspeakable brutality at the hands of traffickers and militias,” the UN refugee agency said.
Earlier this week, the UN migration agency said around 3,600 were returned to the North African country since the beginning of 2021.


France, Germany to beef up COVID-19 controls at common border

Updated 25 February 2021

France, Germany to beef up COVID-19 controls at common border

  • Cross-border workers, who had exemptions until now, will need to present negative PCR tests to get through if traveling for reasons unrelated to their jobs
  • Joint France-German police patrols could be stepped up
PARIS: France said on Thursday it would bring in new COVID-19 restrictions for the area around its common border with Germany, as President Emmanuel Macron’s government tries to contain a surge of coronavirus variants in the French region of Moselle.
Cross-border workers, who had exemptions until now, will need to present negative PCR tests to get through if traveling for reasons unrelated to their jobs, France’s European affairs and health ministers said in a joint statement.
Home working in the area will also be reinforced, they said, after France and Germany said earlier this week they were trying to find ways to prevent a closure of their common border.
Joint France-German police patrols could be stepped up, the ministries said, adding that France’s vaccination program in the region was also being sped up and testing would be boosted.
France has resisted a new national lockdown to control more contagious coronavirus variants, but has begun to toughen up restrictions locally, including in the Dunkirk area in northern France, as cases rise.
The area around Dunkirk will temporarily bring in weekend lockdowns.
The eastern area of Moselle, on the border with Germany and Luxembourg, has seen a surge in the South African variant of the coronavirus, prompting regional authorities to call for a local lockdown, which Paris has resisted imposing so far.
Macron, a fervent pro-European, has consistently advocated for internal borders between EU countries to remain open during the pandemic, and had clashed with Germany last year after Berlin precipitously closed the border during the first wave.

Philippines to receive first COVID-19 vaccines, start inoculations next week

Updated 25 February 2021

Philippines to receive first COVID-19 vaccines, start inoculations next week

  • The Philippines will be the last Southeast Asian country to receive its initial set of vaccines
  • Vaccination program will be crucial for Philippine efforts to revive its economy
MANILA: The Philippines will take delivery of its first COVID-19 vaccines at the weekend, allowing it to kick off its inoculation program from next week, a senior official said on Thursday.
Despite having among the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Asia, the Philippines will be the last Southeast Asian country to receive its initial set of vaccines.
The delivery of 600,000 doses Sinovac Biotech’s vaccines, donated by China, will arrive on Sunday, said Harry Roque, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte.
“It rolls out on Monday because our countrymen are excited,” he said of the vaccination program.
Among the first to be inoculated will be an official from a hospital who lost both parents to the coronavirus, plus a tricycle driver, Roque said.
The Philippines has ordered 25 million doses from Sinovac and was supposed to receive its first batch on Feb. 23. That was delayed emergency use authorization was only given this week.
Aside from Sinovac, 10,000 doses of a vaccine developed by China’s Sinopharm will arrive soon, under a “compassionate use” for Duterte’s security detail. Doses from AstraZeneca will arrive in March, Roque said.
“I have to admit, if we insisted on Western brands, we will still wait for its arrival,” he added.
Duterte, who has pursued warmer ties with China and has a strained relationship with many Western countries, has previously said he wanted to procure COVID-19 vaccines from China or Russia.
The vaccination program will be crucial for Philippine efforts to revive its economy, which suffered a record 9.5 percent slump last year due to strict and lengthy lockdowns that hit consumer spending and saw big job losses.