In the course of my career, I?ve had a few occasions to attend
international policy-setting meetings hosted by the UN and other such
organizations. If I had to do that sort of work on a day-to-day
basis, I?d shoot myself. Trying to get nine or ten countries to agree
on a topic, much less ninety or a hundred, gives new meaning to the
term ?migraine headache?.
And that, of course, is the difficulty with your question on terra
nullius. It may have a fairly ingrained meaning in say, Australia, or
England or the island nation of Kiribati, but if those three don?t
agree with one another on the meaning -- or on which lands are/are not
terra nullius -- then who?s the final arbitrator? I?m getting a
headache just thinking about it.
Of course, terra nullius, as a concept, was found useful in the age of
exploration, exploitation and colonization as a legal justification
for staking a claim on a piece of land, but with most of the world
pretty much divvied up these days, the concept hasn?t seen much use in
legal circles in recent years.
Still, there are a few candidates where terra nullius may apply:
First on the list is Antarctica.
In a book called ?Science and Stewardship in the Antarctic? published
by the National Academy of Sciences, and available on line at:
the authors describe the Antarctic Treaty system and the status of the
countries of the world regarding the treaties. They divide the
countries up into several groups:
--A group of seven countries that have made territorial claims in
Antarctica. The claims -- which overlap -- cover 80% of the territory
of the continent.
--A second group of potential claimants, who recognize Antarctica as
(ta-da!) ?terra nullius?, do not recognize the claims of the first
group because of the terra nullius status, but reserve the right to
make claims of their own.
--Group three neither recognizes existing claims, nor have they made
claims (or reserved the right to make claims) of their own.
--And the fourth group, which recognizes Antarctica as a common
heritage of humankind -- territory owned in common by all.
To those four groups, I would add a fifth: countries that haven?t
signed any of the Antarctica treaties, and are therefore wildcards in
the international arena; they remain unconstrained by any treaties in
terms of making any claims they like -- including a claim of terra
nullius -- on Antarctica.
The next candidate for terra nullius status is the opposite end of the
globe, the North Pole. The big difference between Antarctica and the
North Pole, is that the first is ice underlain by land, while the
second is ice underlain by ocean. Antarctica is truly ?terra?, while
the North Pole is a frozen chunk of the Arctic Ocean.
Still, it?s a bit of a distinction without a difference, perhaps. The
North Pole is frozen year round, and there is a permanent base set up
It may not exactly be terra, but I think it can lay good claim to being nullius.
The number three candidate also has a bit of a problem in the ?terra?
department -- the moon. There is quite a body of international
treaties regarding space exploration and the human presence on
extra-terrestrial pieces of real estate. You can find an excellent
summary at this United Nations site. maintained by none other than the
Office for Outer Space Affairs:
If you click to the English version of the most comprehensive space
treaty, ?Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in
the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other
Celestial Bodies?, which you can find here:
you?ll find it says, in part:
Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not
subject to national appropriation by
claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
Well, that answers the terra nullius issue, right? Not quite. There
are many countries that have not signed the treaty, and others that
have signed it, but not yet ratified it (which usually involves
sending it to the country?s legislative body for final approval). So,
you still have a large ?wild card? group that may one day have the
capability to go to the moon, or beyond, and invoke a concept we might
dub ?extraterra-strial nullius? so they can begin mining dilithium
crystals, or whatever else they find out there.
A last little bit of interesting geography is Spitsbergen, which was
terra nullius until a 1920 treaty granted the small island archipelago
to Norway. However, the treaty includes a good many restrictions of
what Norway can and cannot do with the land -- not the sort of thing
one ordinarily thinks of when dealing with questions of national
sovereignty. Although it clearly is not terra nullius today, I
thought you?d like to be aware of its special status. You can read a
bit more about it at the site of a university in Norway:
And finally, an entire website devoted to terra nullius...isn?t the
internet just wonderful:
I hope this necessarily vague (in parts) answer meets your needs, but
if you find yourself wanting additional information, just let me know.
And happy holidays!
search strategy: Google search on ?terra nullius? by itself, and in
combination with specific geography like Antarctica, ?North Pole?,