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Q: What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"? ( Answered 3 out of 5 stars,   3 Comments )
Subject: What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"?
Category: Reference, Education and News > Education
Asked by: grthumongous-ga
List Price: $15.00
Posted: 19 Dec 2003 01:16 PST
Expires: 18 Jan 2004 01:16 PST
Question ID: 288638
What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"? 
I think an UNoffical  working definition would be land unclaimed or land unowned.

Clarification of Question by grthumongous-ga on 19 Dec 2003 12:46 PST
I recently heard a former Secretary of Defence refer to
Formosa/ROC/Taiwan as being terra nullius at some point(s) in the 19th
or 20th century.
Does this help clarify or amplify the query?

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 19 Dec 2003 15:12 PST
Hello there, 

I think I've identified two (maybe three) possibilities as candidates
for terra nullius territory.   But the real problem is that "terra
nullius" itself is a very squishy term.  Since it's used largely in
international law -- where there isn't a set means of codification or
legal dispute resolution -- it seems to mean whatever Country X wants
it to mean.  Generally, it can be land that is any or all or the
following:  unoccupied, unclaimed, without significant civilization
(whatever that means) or unused.

So...there isn't universal agreement on what is/isn't terra nullius. 
But like I said, I can give you a few pretty good candidates, if you
would like me to post them as an answer.

Let me know.

Clarification of Question by grthumongous-ga on 19 Dec 2003 17:52 PST
Go for it and I will decide.
Subject: Re: What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"?
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 19 Dec 2003 19:46 PST
Rated:3 out of 5 stars
Hello again,

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:


Article II

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?,
grthumongous-ga rated this answer:3 out of 5 stars
Sorry for being tardy.
Your link to Political Science Quarterly (psq) is appreciated. I did
not know about it heretofore.

Subject: Re: What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"?
From: politicalguru-ga on 19 Dec 2003 04:08 PST
Dear grthumongous, 

I don't think that there is such a territory in international law
definitions or in any other definition: even Antarctica has
"ownership" . The only theoretical option is a new island created in
an area, which is not within the maritime sovereignty of any country;
maybe also areas in space in the future.
Subject: Re: What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"?
From: knowledge_seeker-ga on 19 Dec 2003 06:27 PST
Actually, Antarctica has both land unowned and land unclaimed -- 2
different things.

Who owns Antarctica?

"A number of countries have claimed soveriegn rights to Antarctic
Territory; several of these claims overlap, and could potentially be
disputed ... Australia has the largest territorial claim, claiming 42%
of the Antarctic Continent. The Antarctic Treaty (signed in 1961) puts
all territorial claims on hold for the duration of the treaty, so no
one actually owns Antarctica at the moment."

Additionally, if you look at the claims map on that page, you will see
that nobody has laid claim to the portion between 90W and 150W.

Subject: Re: What land today is regarded as "terra nullius"?
From: politicalguru-ga on 19 Dec 2003 06:56 PST
Thank you for the correction, but I'm afraid that my main point stands...

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