It is not often one learns of actual terra nullius—that is, land officially claimed by no one. After all, virtually every iota of terrestrial space on the globe is claimed in our post-national world (with many of those claims, such as those involving certain islands in the South China Sea, being disputed). It is important to say “virtually every iota of space” here, because terra nullius is not simply a legal mechanism for past claims, but covers a number of terrestrial areas over which sovereignty has not been claimed (you can see a list of both historical and current cases in this Wikipedia article).
I was reminded about the fascinating issue of terra nullius by Susie Nakley, who posted (along with some rather appropriately shocked commentary about imperialism, white privilege, and the need for postcolonial studies) a link to this Guardian blog article about a Virginian father who traveled to Bir Tawil to claim it as his kingdom (by planting a flag), so that his daughter could be a “real princess.” I must say I share Nakley’s and the Guardian blogger’s bewilderment that Jeremiah Heaton could be so blind to how loaded of a gesture his territorial claim might be, though I also think it casts such clear light on such an intriguing place—a kind of geo-political non-place—that I am half-glad Heaton made the trip.
Bir Tawil is one of the few significantly sized cases of terra nullius that is not located on one of the earth’s poles. It is a 2,060 sq. km area that lies between Egypt and Sudan. And when I do say it lies between Egypt and Sudan, I am, remarkably, speaking correctly—for, as this Wikipedia article relates, a long-running border dispute would make it disadvantageous for either Egypt or Sudan to claim the land, since it would require them to release a claim upon another, disputed area that is rich with oil resources. Zack Beauchamp provides a compelling and thorough overview of terra nullius law and history in his article on the Heaton claim to the creation of the “Kingdom of North Sudan.” Besides his excellent analysis of terra nullius and of Heaton’s claim, Beauchamp is especially strong on highlighting that such a claim is legible within current international theory—in Beauchamp’s choice phrasing, it is “perfectly, bizarrely legal.”
It is not the assertion of, but the reception and adjudication of such claims that fascinate me. Anyone, of course, can plant a flag somewhere—even if it is 4,200 meters underneath the Arctic Sea, as Russian “explorers” did in 2007 (using a “rust-proof titanium metal flag”), in an effort to bolster their country’s claims to Arctic territory. However, it is quite another thing to actually maintain a land-claim, and indeed many, if not most land-claims, exist in a kind of constant pressure, with competing claims always threatening to undermine a territorial assertion. This is most obviously true in actively disputed places such as Israel-Palestine or the Crimea, but it is also the case in any settler-colonialist nation, such as my own country, the United States, whose territorial claims must counter almost countless claims by Native Americans.
The (albeit profoundly politically incorrect) absurdity of Heaton’s claim to Bir Tawil calls attention to the fact that any assertion to territory is just that—an assertion that must be maintained according to certain protocols. As Jack Linshi’s Time article shows, Heaton’s claim to the creation of the “Kingdom of North Sudan” means nothing unless it is accepted by relevant authorities, including Sudan, Egypt, and, of course the ultimate guarantor of all legitimate identity in our current geopolitical world, the United Nations. The fact that Heaton claims to have “founded” a “nation” purely for his daughter, in my view, points in very interesting ways at how arbitrary and self-interested all national claims are. Whether it is in asserting often very fine distinctions between peoples (say, Ukrainians as non-Russians, or Scots as non-English and non-Welsh) or in asserting hostile control over the utterly dispossessed, national claims always involve bald assertions that merely seem less arbitrary with the passage of time.
Once again, it is the combination of legality and sheer arbitrariness of Heaton’s gesture that intrigues me. I have always been fascinated by stories about individuals who, on occasion, seek to lay claim to parcels of real estate on other planets, with the Moon being the most frequent site of such claims (you can see a nice summation of these issues here). As bizarre as these claims are, it is vital to place them in a legal context—particularly, that of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty (and do visit the IISL’s site to brush up on your space law). Even with that treaty in force, US astronauts still made gestures similar to that of Heaton in various moon landings, planting nylon flags in all of the Apollo missions (and, according to this analysis, all but the first are still there, if not waving). It is almost as if, even when there is agreement not to claim territory, humans who arrive in areas unknown to them feel compelled to mark it.
A final note: the Heaton claim also brings to mind how creepy and outdated seems to me the continuing place of royalty in our society. As this BBC article shows, his daughter Emily now refers to herself as a princess and wears a crown. I have always been surprised at how prevalent princes and princesses are in our society, particularly in children’s programming aimed at a United States that is founded on a complete rejection of monarchical control. As I have noted elsewhere, the combination of legal status and arcane ritual involved in ongoing instances of monarchy seems profoundly out of place in a modern world, and it is the movement beyond imagining oneself a prince or princess in fairy tales to actually seeking a territorial claim to it that I find most disturbing in this story. But then again, perhaps the very absurdity of this may well cast useful light on how equally absurd it is that in advanced nation-states we still have the belief that some people are eligible to rule others due to their birth.