International Relations/Political Science
30 January 2020

Bargaining over Maritime Boundaries in Times of Legal Uncertainty

There is important variation in the ways states draw their common maritime boundaries. Some are able to sign maritime boundary agreements quickly and without significant disagreements, whereas others enter into lengthy disputes over where their common boundary should lie. Interestingly, there are also many states who do not seem to be very interested in drawing their maritime boundaries with their neighbouring states. In his PhD thesis, Dr Abdurrahman Umut Yüksel starts making sense of this variation. Interview.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

My topic built on my master’s dissertation research, where I examined the impact of multilateral lawmaking efforts during the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea on the onset and management of the Aegean dispute between Greece and Turkey. 

What were your thesis questions and your methodology?

I asked three questions: 

  1. When and how do states enter into maritime boundary disputes? 
  2. When and how do maritime boundary disputes end? 
  3. When and how do states settle their maritime boundaries? 

I used mixed methods to deal with these questions. I created a new dataset that includes all the pairs of states that could have entered into a maritime boundary agreement or a dispute between the end of the Second World War and 2016. Based on this dataset, I first sought to identify whether international legal uncertainty was related with the propensity of states to enter into disputes, end them, or simply settle their maritime boundaries often without going through a dispute. Based on my quantitative analyses, I selected a few cases to further probe my proposed narrative or supplant it in the face of surprising findings. I chose the cases of Greece v. Turkey and Mexico v. United States

What findings did you make?

I found that states are more likely to enter into disputes when international law is uncertain – that is, when there are various rules and interpretations of similar authority that permit states to formulate conflicting, maximalist claims. The Greece-Turkey case study suggested that once a dispute started, it could persist by getting linked with other disputes (such as territorial disputes), even if the international legal rules concerning the original disagreement became settled. At the same time, and to my surprise, I also found that boundary agreements were more likely in times of legal uncertainty as well. I am currently in the process of delving deeper into this surprising result, which may in part be explained by the desire of two states to quickly settle their boundary to promote one legal rule over an alternative or because the existence of natural resources raises the prospect of joint gains if the boundary is settled quickly and permanently.

What are you doing now?
I now work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Global Governance Centre, working for the project entitled “The Domain of International Adjudication: Why Sovereign States Abandon Decision Control”. The project is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and led by Professor Fuad Zarbiyev

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Abdurrahman Umut Yüksel defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in October 2019. Professor James Hollway presided the committee, which included Professor Cédric Dupont, thesis director, and Professor Paul Huth, from the Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Yüksel, Abdurrahman Umut. “Bargaining over Maritime Boundaries in Times of Legal Uncertainty.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by shinobi/