Tuesday, January 09, 2007


One of the perils of staying in gradschool too long is that you occasionally come across reminders that other people have found better things to do with their time than you have.

Via a link on Samizdata, I became aware today that there is a "nation" called Sealand just off the coast of England. No kidding. It's a sunken tower left over from WWII. Apparently, the UK built a number of such artificial forts during the war on which to station gun crews to shoot down incoming German planes. During the protests agaist the BBC monopoly in the 1960s (BBC wasn't playing enough pop tunes, apparently), one of the offshore radio stations was set up here. Since it's technically out of UK territory (the existing standard during the war was 3 nautical miles), Roy Bates decided that he could just...take it. And so he did - launched an invasion, evicted the other squatters, and decalred it a sovereign nation. He and his family lived there from 1967 to 1999, even fending off an "invation" from the Netherlands and Germany (more specifically, some Dutch mercenaries in the employ of a German businessman) in 1978 in which "prisoners of war" were taken. Indeed, most of Sealand's claim to legitimacy stems from this incident - first because the UK government declined to intervene (at Germany's request), stating that the base was outside of their territorial waters, and second because the Germans ended up sending a consul to negotiate for the businessman's release (he had accepted Sealand citizenship, apparently).

The UK has since exercised an option under international law to extend its territory to 12 nautical miles off its coast (Sealand, of course, responded by doing the same, which puts the inlet leading to Ipswich under their control), which in effect claims Sealand. The legal status is therefore unknown (though court rulings in Germany and the US have established that Sealand is not a sovereign nation), though it seems unlikely that the international community would recognize it.

The principality is currently "available for transfer" (since you apparently cannot sell a principality under international law) for a not so small fee. So, anyone looking to buy a nation who has 65million pound-sterling lying around...

The nation's homepage is here, and there is a movie in the works that should be out in 2008. Must-see TV! There was another documentary some years ago, but I haven't had any luck tracking down a copy of it. Oh yeah, and Sealand has an official athlete and a constitution.

I don't have that much to add here. I could speculate about the nature and origin of "nationality" and "sovereignty" and so on, and even say something clever about everyone being "sovereign" and this episode proving that "size matters not" in nationhood, twist it around to some kind of argument for individual rights. But truth be told, all I see here is proof that laws need enforcing with guns. Mr. Bates' "nation"'s sovereignty was only "recognized" because the UK (understandably) didn't see why it should have to spend money and put people in the line of fire to rescue some hostages who hadn't bothered to ask the UK's permission to land on Sealand in the first place and certainly weren't about to turn it over to British authorities once they'd taken it. Why Germany didn't send its own troops is a bit harder to explain, but I imagine it's roughly similar - modulo some concern that running the German navy (even the gayed-up postwar version) within 10nm of the British coast might ruffle some feathers! Mr. Bates gets away with it because his seized property isn't really worth anyone's while to get back.

True, there are some international laws that apply (see this skeptic's page for an argument - apparently widely recognized - that because the Royal Navy built and owns the sunken ship on which Mr. Bates has established his "nation" that "Sealand" is UK jurisdiction), and there have been some court cases as necessary. But as I understand it, international law is still on fairly shaky ground. Without an enforcing body, law is just an abstract, executed when and as the good faith of the parties involved holds. That's international law: nations obligated by treaty, reputation, and reciprocity - but with no real system of courts and penalties. Anyone about to stutter that the UN is such a body - please save yourself the trouble. The UN Security Council passes resolutions that reflect the will of the international community (and even that's really stretching it - it's the will of the influential international community), but that's not the same thing as reflecting international law. Having to negotiate with one another enforces a kind of moral veneer, which in turn results in behavior that is somewhat better than just pushing for what you want. But in the final analysis it's still not "law" becuase there are no principles in the UN that trigger automatic action from the Security Council and no courts that direct the UN to enforce its resolutions simply for the sake of consistency. It's as if there were neighborhood councils that reviewed all crimes (in the presence of the criminal himself, who has a vote) and decided which the police should focus on, what the punishment should be, and indeed passed verdicts as to guilt or innocence.

Sealand's sovereignty depends on such a council recognizing it. And for such a council to recognize it, Sealand must have something that makes it worth their while. There must be some good reason why they'd prefer to recognize it than to seize it for themselves. For any sizeable claim by a sizeable number of people, this would obviously stem mostly from a desire to avoid war (because if my country can claim it, so can anyone else's, and so we all agree to abide by the default rather than resigning ourselves to endless squabbling). Sealand exists several thousand tiers below this. It's allowed to keep its illusions of sovereignty because it isn't worth Her Majesty's Government's while to take it back, and yet it's close enough to the UK that no one else is likely to bother to claim it (witness Germany's failure to).

Probably a lot of Libertarians would like to get romantic about Sealand, and I admit I'm one of them. But better judgment advises against. This isn't a nation under anyone's definition but the squatter's, who's given up squatting on his sunken ship for sunny Spain in the meantime anyway. When it will get interesting is when private groups start heading to space. I expect to see some tangles involving this in my lifetime, and I try not to think about them, because thinking about them does lend a glamor to a career as an international law expert that Linguistics just doesn't have...


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