Terra nullius

Terra nullius (/ˈtɛrə.nʌˈləs/, plural terrae nullius) is a Latin expression meaning "nobody's land",[1] and was a principle sometimes used in international law to justify claims that territory may be acquired by a state's occupation of it.[2]


Terra nullius stems from the Roman law term res nullius, meaning nobody's thing. According to the Roman law res nullius, or things without an owner, such as wild animals (ferae beastiae), lost slaves and abandoned buildings could be taken as property by anyone by seizure.

A part of the debate over the history of terra nullius is when the term itself was first used. According to historian of ideas Andrew Fitzmaurice, territorium nullius and terra nullius were two different, albeit related, legal terms. He claims that territorium nullius was first used in a meeting of the Institut de Droit International in 1888 where the legal principles of the Berlin conference were discussed and that terra nullius was introduced twenty years later during legal disputes over the polar regions.[3] Historian Michael Connor on the other hand, argues that territorium nullius and terra nullius are the same thing.[4] Both scholars are active in the Australian history wars debate.

There is considerable debate among historians about how and when the terra nullius concepts were used. The debate has been especially prevalent in Australia where it was ignited by the history wars caused by the Mabo case in 1992. The history wars caused Australian historians to reevaluate the country's history, the dispossession of Aborigines and whether the land should best be characterized as having been "settled" or "conquered". A part of this debate concerned whether terra nullius as a concept was ever used by England and other European powers to justify territorial conquest.

On one side of the debate are historians such as Alan Frost and Henry Reynolds who claim that in the 15th and 16th century, European writers adopted the res nullius concept for territorial conquest. Frost writes:

By the mid–eighteenth century, the theoretical basis of a new convention of acquiring empire had emerged. If a European state (a Christian Prince) had already established an effective possession of a region, another might acquire title to it only by formal cession (which might or might not involve outright purchase). If the region was not already possessed by a rival, then a state might acquire it in one of three ways, viz.: – by persuading the indigenous inhabitants to submit themselves to its overlordship; – by purchasing from those inhabitants the right to settle part or parts of it; – by unilateral possession, on the basis of first discovery and effective occupation.[5]

Historians debate whether "first discovery and effective occupation" was applied to territory inhabited by indigenous people that European empires sought to acquire or not. According to Frost:

However, if the indigenes had advanced beyond the state of nature only so far as to have developed language and the community of the family, but no further; if they had not yet mixed their labour with the earth in any permanent way; or if the region were literally uninhabited, then Europeans considered it to be terra nullius (i.e., belonging to no one), to which they might gain permanent title by first discovery and effective occupation.[5]

On the other side of the debate are historians which claim that terra nullius is a much younger concept, which did not become formalized before the end of the 19th century. Historian Merete Borch writes:

When the wealth of material relevant to this issue is surveyed it seems much more likely that there was no legal doctrine maintaining that inhabited land could be regarded as ownerless, nor was this the basis of official policy, in the eighteenth century or before. Rather it seems to have developed as a legal theory in the nineteenth century.[6]

These historians claim instead that territorial conquest was justified from natural law that which has no owner can be taken by the first taker. Michael Connor in his book "The Invention of Terra Nullius" takes an even more extreme view and argues that no one in the 19th century thought of Australia as being terra nullius. He calls the concept a legal fiction, a straw man developed in the late 20th century:

By the time of Mabo in 1992, terra nullius was the only explanation for the British settlement of Australia. Historians, more interested in politics than archives, misled the legal profession into believing that a phrase no one had heard of a few years before was the very basis of our statehood, and Reynolds' version of our history, especially The Law of the Land, underpinned the Mabo judges' decision-making.[7]

Current claims of terra nullius

Few territories are currently considered terra nullius.

Bir Tawil

Bir Tawil is an example of a territory often claimed to be terra nullius.[8] Between Egypt and Sudan is the 2,060 km2 (800 sq mi) landlocked territory of Bir Tawil, which was created by a discrepancy between borders drawn in 1899 and 1902. One border placed Bir Tawil under Sudan's control and the Hala'ib Triangle under Egypt's; the other border did the reverse. Both countries assert the border that lets them claim the Hala'ib Triangle, which is significantly larger (than Bir Tawil) and next to the Red Sea, with the side effect that Bir Tawil is unclaimed by either nation. The area is, however, under the de facto control of Egypt, although it is not shown on official Egyptian maps.[9] Bir Tawil has no settled population but the land is used by Bedouins who roam the area.[10]

Gornja Siga and other pockets

Serbia and Croatia dispute several small areas on the east bank of the Danube. However, some pockets on the west bank, of which Gornja Siga is the largest, are not claimed by either country since Croatia recognizes that they belong to Serbia but Serbia doesn't claim them.

On 13 April 2015, Vít Jedlička from the Czech Party of Free Citizens proclaimed the right-libertarian micronation of Liberland on Gornja Siga.[11][12] Shortly after Liberland, another micronation project, the Kingdom of Enclava, was declared,[13] eventually claiming part of the second largest pocket as their territory.[14] The Free Republic of Verdis has claimed pocket 3 leaving pocket 2 unknown to who claims it.[15] The Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs has rejected these claims, stating that the differing border claims between Serbia and Croatia do not involve terra nullius, and are not subject to occupation by a third party.[16] However, the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on 24 April 2015 that while Serbia does not consider "Liberland" to be an important matter, the "new state" does not impinge upon the Serbian border, which is delineated by the Danube River.[17]


While several countries have made claims to parts of Antarctica in the first half of the 20th century, the remainder, including most of Marie Byrd Land (the portion east from 150°W to 90°W), has not been claimed by any sovereign nation. Signatories to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 agreed not to make such claims, except the Soviet Union and the United States, who reserved the right to make a claim.

Historical claims of terra nullius

Several territories have been claimed to be terra nullius. In a minority of those claims, international and domestic courts have ruled on whether the territory is or was terra nullius or not.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples inhabited Australia for over 65,000 years before European settlement, which commenced in 1788. Indigenous customs, rituals and laws were unwritten. It has been claimed that Australia was considered terra nullius at the time of settlement.

At the Federation Banquet celebrating the Federation of Australia on 1 January 1901, the Premier of New South Wales, Sir William Lyne said: "Of the three great colonial possessions, Australia's lot has been the happiest. Unlike Canada and South Africa, she has not had a race problem to solve".[18]

In 1971, in the controversial case of Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, popularly known as the Gove land rights case, Justice Richard Blackburn ruled that Australia had been considered "desert and uncultivated" (a term which included territory in which resided "uncivilized inhabitants in a primitive state of society") before European settlement, and therefore, by the law that applied at the time, open to be claimed by right of occupancy, and that there was no such thing as native title in Australian law. The concept of terra nullius was not considered in this case, however.[19] Court cases in 1977, 1979, and 1982 brought by or on behalf of Aboriginal activists challenged Australian sovereignty on the grounds that terra nullius had been improperly applied, therefore Aboriginal sovereignty should still be regarded as being intact. The courts rejected these cases, but the Australian High Court left the door open for a reassessment of whether the continent should be considered "settled" or "conquered". Later, on 1 February 2014, the traditional owners of land on Badu Island received freehold title to 10,000 hectare in an act of the Queensland Government.[20]

In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islanders from Mer (Murray Island) started legal proceedings to establish their traditional land ownership. This led to Mabo v Queensland (No 1). In 1992, after ten years of hearings before the Queensland Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, the latter court found that the Mer people had owned their land prior to annexation by Queensland.[21] The ruling thus had far-reaching significance for the land claims of both Torres Strait Islanders and other Indigenous Australians.

The controversy over Australian land ownership erupted into the so-called "history wars". The 1992 Mabo decision overturned the doctrine of terra nullius in Australia.[22]


Scotland or Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark–Norway all claimed sovereignty over the archipelago of Svalbard in the seventeenth century, but none permanently occupied it. Expeditions from each of these polities visited Svalbard principally during the summer for whaling, with the first two sending a few wintering parties in the 1620s and 1630s.[3]

During the 19th century, both Norway and Russia made strong claims to the archipelago. In 1909, Italian jurist Camille Piccioni described Spitzbergen, as it was then known, as terra nullius:

The issue would have been simpler if Spitzbergen, until now terra nullius, could have been attributed to a single state, for reasons of neighbouring or earlier occupation. But this is not the case and several powers can, for different reasons, make their claims to this territory which still has no master.[23]

The territorial dispute was eventually resolved by the Svalbard Treaty of 9 February 1920 which recognized Norwegian sovereignty over the islands.

Eastern Greenland

Norway occupied and claimed parts of (then uninhabited) eastern Greenland in 1931, claiming that it constituted terra nullius and calling the territory Erik the Red's Land.[24] The Permanent Court of International Justice ruled against the Norwegian claim. The Norwegians accepted the ruling and withdrew their claim.

Scarborough Shoal (South China Sea)

The Philippines and the People's Republic of China both claim the Scarborough Shoal or Panatag Shoal or Huangyan Island (黄岩岛), nearest to the island of Luzon, located in the South China Sea. The Philippines claims it under the principles of terra nullius and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). China's claim refers to its discovery in the 13th century by Chinese fishermen. (The former Nationalist government on the Chinese mainland had also claimed this territory after the founding of the Republic of China in 1911.) However, despite China's position of non-participation in an UNCLOS case, in 2016 the PCA denied the lawfulness of China's "Nine-Dash Line" claim. Despite this, China continues to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, and Scarborough Shoal is a prime location for another one. Chinese ships have been seen in the vicinity of the shoal. Analysis of photos has concluded that the ships lack dredging equipment and therefore represent no imminent threat of reclamation work.[25]

South Island of New Zealand

In 1840, Lieutenant William Hobson, following instructions of the British government, pronounced the southern island of New Zealand to be uninhabited by civilized peoples, which qualified the land to be terra nullius, and therefore fit for the Crown's political occupation. Hobson's decision was also influenced by a small party of French settlers heading towards Akaroa on Banks Peninsula to settle in 1840.[26]


Joseph Trutch, the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, insisted that First Nations had never owned land, and thus could safely be ignored. It is for this reason that most of British Columbia remains unceded land.[27]

In Guerin v. The Queen, a Supreme Court of Canada decision on aboriginal rights, the Court stated that the government has a fiduciary duty toward the First Nations of Canada and established aboriginal title to be a sui generis right. Since, there has been a more complicated debate and a general narrowing of the definition of "fiduciary duty".

Guano Islands

The Guano Islands Act of 18 August 1856 enabled citizens of the U.S. to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. The islands can be located anywhere, so long as they are not occupied and not within the jurisdiction of other governments. It also empowers the President of the United States to use the military to protect such interests, and establishes the criminal jurisdiction of the United States.

Pinnacle Islands (Senkaku/Diaoyu)

A disputed archipelago in the East China Sea, the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, are claimed by Japan to have become part of its territory as terra nullius in January 1895, following the First Sino-Japanese War. However, this interpretation is not accepted by the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan), both of whom claim sovereignty over the islands.

Burkina Faso and Niger

A narrow strip of land adjacent to two territorial markers along the Burkina FasoNiger border was claimed by neither country until the International Court of Justice settled a more extensive territorial dispute in 2013. The former unclaimed territory was awarded to Niger.[28]

Clipperton Island

The sovereignty of Clipperton Island was settled by arbitration between France and Mexico. King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy rendered a decision in 1931 that "'the sovereignty of Clipperton Island belongs to France from the date of November 17, 1858.' The Mexican claim was rejected for lack of proof of prior Spanish discovery and, in any event, no effective occupation by Mexico before 1858, when the island was therefore territorium nullius, and the French occupation then was sufficient and legally continuing."[29]


According to Ian Mitchell, Rockall was terra nullius until it was claimed by the United Kingdom in 1955.[30] It was formally annexed in 1972.[30][31][32]


One of the few micronations to control a physical location, the Principality of Sealand has existed de facto since 1967 on an abandoned British anti-aircraft gun tower in the North Sea. At the point when it was taken over, the tower had been abandoned by the Royal Navy and was outside British territorial waters.[33] Paddy Roy Bates, who styled himself Prince, claimed that it was terra nullius. Despite rejecting this claim on the basis that the tower is an artificial structure, the British government has never attempted to evict the Sealanders, and a court in 1968 confirmed that at that point, the tower was outside British jurisdiction.[34]

Western Sahara

At the request of Morocco, the International Court of Justice in 1975 addressed whether Western Sahara was terra nullius at the time of Spanish colonization in 1885. The court found in its advisory opinion that Western Sahara was not terra nullius at that time.

Limits of national jurisdiction and sovereignty

Limits of national jurisdiction and sovereignty
Outer space (including Earth orbits; the Moon and other celestial bodies, and their orbits)
national airspaceterritorial waters airspacecontiguous zone airspaceinternational airspace
land territory surfaceinternal waters surfaceterritorial waters surfacecontiguous zone surfaceExclusive Economic Zone surfaceinternational waters surface
internal watersterritorial watersExclusive Economic Zoneinternational waters
land territory undergroundContinental Shelf surfaceContinental Shelf surfaceextended continental shelf surfaceinternational seabed surface
Continental Shelf undergroundextended continental shelf undergroundinternational seabed underground
  full national jurisdiction and sovereignty
  restrictions on national jurisdiction and sovereignty
  international jurisdiction per common heritage of mankind

See also


  1. "Definition of terra nullius- English Dictionary". Allwords.com. Retrieved 15 June 2010.
  2. "New Jersey v. New York, 523 US 767 (1998)". US Supreme Court. 26 May 1998. Retrieved 29 January 2010. Even as to terra nullius, like a volcanic island or territory abandoned by its former sovereign, a claimant by right as against all others has more to do than planting a flag or rearing a monument. From the 19th century the most generous settled view has been that discovery accompanied by symbolic acts give no more than "an inchoate title, an option, as against other states, to consolidate the first steps by proceeding to effective occupation within a reasonable time.8 I. Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law 146 (4th ed.1990); see also 1 C. Hyde, International Law 329 (rev.2d ed.1945); 1 L. Oppenheim International Law §§222-223, pp. 439–441 (H. Lauterpacht 5th ed.1937); Hall A Treatise on International Law, at 102–103; 1 J. Moore, International Law 258 (1906); R. Phillimore, International Law 273 (2d ed. 1871); E. Vattel, Law of Nations, §208, p. 99 (J. Chitty 6th Am. ed. 1844).
  3. http://surplusvalue.org.au/Misc%20Articles%20and%20Poems/terra%20nullius%20copy.pdf
  4. "Null truth to academic accusations". www.sunray22b.net. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  5. http://samuelgriffith.org.au/docs/vol1/chap11.pdf
  6. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/76.pdf
  7. Michael Connor in The Bulletin (Sydney), 20 August 2003: (see further Connor 2005.)
  8. There is some disagreement of whether Bir Tawil is 'terra nullius or not. See f.e Chris Borgen, The Man Who Would Be King, Daddy’s Little Princess, and their Territorial Claim
  9. Central Intelligence Agency. CIA World Factbook 2009 MobileReference, 2009. ISBN 1607783339
  10. "Man lays claim to African land to make daughter real life 'princess'". kdvr.com. 17 July 2014. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  11. "Liberland". liberland.cz. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
  12. Martínek, Jan (15 April 2015). "Člen Svobodných vyhlásil na území bývalé Jugoslávie vlastní stát" (in Czech). Novinky.cz. Právo. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
  13. "Polish tourists proclaim 'Kingdom of Enclava'". Agence France-Presse. 15 May 2015. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015.
  14. "About Enclava". Enclava. Archived from the original on 29 July 2015.
  15. https://buzzara.rtl.hr/virealno/3500391/liberland-20-kako-jedan-cetrnaestogodisnjak-stvara-drzavu-izmedju-hrvatske-i-srbije/
  16. "On Virtual Narratives at Croatia's Borders". Hungarian Embassy of the Republic of Croatia. Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia. Retrieved 6 August 2015.
  17. McKirdy, Euan (25 April 2015). "Liberland: Could the world's newest micronation get off the ground?". CNN. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  18. Sydney Morning Herald, "Our higher ambitions", 1 January 2001
  19. Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141 (27 April 1971) Supreme Court (NT).
  20. Torres News, 10–16 February 2014
  21. "Indigenous people still battle for land rights: activist". ABC News Online. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 3 June 2007. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  22. https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/research-and-guides/native-title-research/overturning-doctrine-terra%20nullius-the-mabo-case.pdf
  23. Camille Piccioni, Revue generale de droit international public vol. XVI (1909)
  24. Jacobs, Frank. "The Cold War that Wasn't: Norway Annexes Greenland". bigthink.com. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  25. Mollman, Steve. "The "strategic triangle" that would allow Beijing to control the South China Sea". Quartz. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  26. Tipene O'regan, 'The Ngai Tahu Claim' in I H Kawharu
  27. "A Short Commentary on Land Claims in BC". Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. Retrieved 8 June 2010.
  28. "Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders: Frontier Dispute (Burkina Faso/Niger)". International Court of Justice. 16 April 2013. Retrieved 4 August 2017.
  29. Ireland, Gordon (1941). Boundaries, possessions, and conflicts in Central and North America and the Caribbean. New York: Octagon Books. p. 320.
  30. Ian Mitchell (2012). Isles of the North. Birlinn. p. 232.
  31. "1955: Britain claims Rockall". BBC. On This Day: 21 September.
  32. "Island Of Rockall Act 1972" (PDF). legislation.gov.uk. 10 February 1972.
  33. "History of Sealand". The Principality of Sealand. Archived from the original on 1 October 2015.
  34. Regina v. Paddy Roy Bates and Michael Roy Bates, The Shire Hall, Chelmsford, 25 October 1968. "Regina v. Paddy Roy Bates and Michael Roy Bates". The Shire Hall, Chelmsford. Archived from the original on 2 March 2007. Retrieved 29 May 2015.
  • Connor, Michael. The invention of terra nullius, Sydney: Macleay Press, 2005.
  • Culhane, Dara. The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law, and the First Nations. Vancouver: Talon Books, 1998.
  • Lindqvist, Sven. Terra nullius. A Journey through No One's Land. Translated by Sarah Death. Granta, London 2007. Pbk 2008. The New Press, New York 2007. Details here
  • Rowse, Tim. "Terra nullius" – The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre. Oxford University Press, 2001.

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