Terra nullius

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For other uses, see No Man's Land (disambiguation).

Terra nullius (/ˈtɛrə nʌˈl.əs/, plural terrae nullius) is a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning "land belonging to no one",[1] which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished sovereignty. Sovereignty over territory which is terra nullius may be acquired through occupation,[2] though in some cases doing so would violate an international law or treaty.

History in Australia[edit]

European settlement of Australia commenced in 1788. Prior to this, Indigenous Australians inhabited the continent and had unwritten laws, as documented in the case of the Yirrkala community.

However, the Indigenous Australians did not have any form of political organization that Europeans could understand as being analogous to their own institutions, and the British could not find recognised leaders with the authority to sign treaties, so treaties were not signed (in contrast to British colonial practices in many areas of North America, Africa, New Zealand, etc.).

The first test of terra nullius in Australia occurred with the decision of R v Tommy (Monitor, 29 November 1827), which indicated that the native inhabitants were only subject to English law where the incident concerned both natives and settlers. The rationale was that Aboriginal tribal groups already operated under their own legal systems. This position was further reinforced by the decisions of R v Boatman or Jackass and Bulleyes (Sydney Gazette, 25 February 1832) and R v Ballard (Sydney Gazette, 23 April 1829).

Prompted by Batman's Treaty with Wurundjeri elders of the area around the future Melbourne, in 1835 Governor Bourke implemented the doctrine of terra nullius by proclaiming that Indigenous Australians could not sell or assign land, nor could an individual person or group acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown.[3]

The first decision of the New South Wales Supreme Court to make explicit use of the term terra nullius was R v Murrell and Bummaree (unreported, New South Wales Supreme Court, 11 April 1836, Burton J). Terra nullius was not endorsed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council until the decision of Cooper v Stuart in 1889, some fifty three years later.[4]

However, historian Michael Connor has claimed that the concept was a straw man developed in the late twentieth 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.[5]

There is some controversy as to the meaning of the term. For example, it is asserted that, rather than implying mere emptiness, terra nullius can be interpreted as an absence of civilized society. The English common law of the time allowed for the legal settlement of "uninhabited or barbarous country".[6]

In 1971, in the controversial 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.[7] 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. These cases were rejected by the courts, but the Australian High Court left the door open for a reassessment of whether the continent should be considered "settled" or "conquered".


The concept of terra nullius became a major issue in Australian politics when in 1992, during an Aboriginal rights case known as Mabo, the High Court of Australia issued a judgment which was a direct overturning of terra nullius. In this case, the Court found that there was a concept of native title in common law, that the source of native title was the traditional connection to or occupation of the land, that the nature and content of native title was determined by the character of the connection or occupation under traditional laws or customs and that native title could be extinguished by the valid exercise of governmental powers provided a clear and plain intention to do so was manifest.

In 1996, The High Court re-visited the subject of native title in Wik. The 4-3 majority in the Wik Decision stated that native title and pastoral leases could co-exist over the same area and that native peoples could use land for hunting and performing sacred ceremonies even without exercising rights of ownership. However, in the event of any conflict between the rights and interests of pastoralists and native title, it would be the former that would prevail.

The court's ruling in Mabo has enabled some Aboriginal peoples to reclaim limited territory appropriated under the doctrine of terra nullius. This has proven extremely controversial, as it has led to lawsuits seeking the transfer or restoration of land ownership rights to native groups. An estimated 3,000 further agreements have been reached in which Aboriginal peoples have regained former lands. An example is that of a December 2004 case in which the Noonkanbah people were recognised as the traditional owners of a 1,811 km2 (699 sq mi) plot of land in Western Australia. In the Northern Territory, 40 per cent of the land and most of its coastline is now owned by Aboriginal peoples.

Former terrae nullius elsewhere[edit]


Svalbard was considered to be a terra nullius until Norway was given sovereignty over the islands in the Svalbard Treaty of 9 February 1920. Scotland, the Netherlands, and Denmark–Norway all claimed sovereignty over the region in the seventeenth century, but none permanently occupied the islands. Each visited Svalbard only during the summer for whaling, with the first two sending a few wintering parties in the 1620s and 1630s.


Main article: Erik the Red's Land

Norway occupied and claimed parts of (then uninhabited) Eastern Greenland in the 1920s, claiming that it constituted terra nullius. The matter was decided by the Permanent Court of International Justice against Norway.


Another example of a terra nullius was Antarctica, which was not sighted by humans until James Cook's second voyage in 1773/4. Several countries made claims to parts of the continent in the first half of the 20th century, while other areas remain unclaimed.

Scarborough Shoal[edit]

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.

New Zealand[edit]

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.


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.[8]

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[edit]

The Guano Islands Act from August 18, 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)[edit]

A disputed archipelago in the East China Sea, the uninhabited Senkaku Islands are now claimed by Japan to have become part of their territory as terra nullius during the nineteenth century. This interpretation is not accepted by other claimants of the islands, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Japan took the islands during the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War.

Burkina Faso and Niger[edit]

A narrow strip of land adjacent to two territorial markers along the Burkina FasoNiger border was claimed by neither country until the ICJ settled a more extensive territorial dispute in 2013. The former terra nullius was awarded to Niger.[9]

Current terrae nullius[edit]

Simplified map showing Egypt's claim (yellow and green), Sudan's claim (blue and green) and Bir Tawil (white)

Bir Tawil[edit]

Main article: Bir Tawil

Between Egypt and Sudan is the 2,060 km2 (795 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 Hala'ib, which is significantly larger 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.[10] Bir Tawil has no settled population.

Land portions along the Danube river[edit]

As a consequence of the border dispute between Croatia and Serbia, there are some areas along the western bank of the Danube river that are unclaimed by either party, although all of them are administered by Croatia.

Land strip at the Croatia–Slovenia border[edit]

Brezovica pri Metliki is a village located in the southeastern part of Slovenia, about 50 km air distance from Zagreb, Croatia. Brezovica Žumberačka is a Croatian exclave that is surrounded by the Slovenian village. It is confirmed by both Croatian and Slovenian cadaster maps, although boundary lines slightly differ.[11][12][13] Croatia has a second exclave within 400 meters of Brezovica Žumberačka. This exclave would normally be an enclave also, except that neither Slovenia nor Croatia claims one parcel of land that adjoins the exclave.[13] If Slovenia were to claim the parcel, Croatia's exclave would become an enclave as well. As it is, the exclave is bordered by Slovenia and terra nullius.

Unclaimed areas in Antarctica[edit]

Territorial claims in Antarctica, with the unclaimed part of West Antarctica shown in white. The off-white area near the South Pole in the Norwegian sector may also be unclaimed.

While several countries have made claims to parts of Antarctica, most of Marie Byrd Land (the portion east of 150°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.

The Norwegian claim to Queen Maud Land left its southern boundary undefined,[14] so the southern part of that segment of Antarctica may also be unclaimed.

International sea[edit]

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, the international waters and international seabed are treated under the common heritage of mankind principle by the signatories of the convention.

Celestial bodies[edit]

According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, 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.[15] They are treated under the common heritage of mankind principle by the signatories of the treaty.

Limits of national jurisdiction and sovereignty[edit]

The principal treaties defining sovereignty beyond land territory are the Outer Space Treaty and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. They confirm the full national jurisdiction over the coastal waters (internal and territorial) and over the continental shelf underground. There are limitations that allow foreign vessels the right of passage and for foreign states to lay pipelines and cables in the territorial waters, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf surface. Exploitation of marine life and mineral resources in these areas is a reserved right of the coastal state. Exploitation of mineral resources in the extended continental shelf is a reserved right of the coastal state, but it must pay tax on these activities to the International Seabed Authority (UNCLOS, Art. 82). The archipelagic waters are covered by a special hybrid regime with rules regarding territorial and internal waters.

On vessels, spacecraft and structures in places with international jurisdiction or terra nullius, the general rule is that the operator state of the vessel is responsible for it and regulates laws there. Additionally, the crew are subject to the laws of the state of their citizenship[dubious ]. Earth orbital slots are the only type of extraterrestrial real estate recognised by law and are allocated by the International Telecommunication Union (part of the UN System).

There are some undefined limits for the application of jurisdiction and sovereignty:

The current entities that exercise jurisdiction and sovereignty rights are:

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 airspace[citation needed]international 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 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[edit]


  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. Since 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. ^ "Governor Bourke's Proclamation 1835 (UK)". Documenting a Democracy: 110 key documents that are the foundation of our nation. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 2008-03-05. "This document implemented the doctrine of terra nullius upon which British settlement was based, reinforcing the notion that the land belonged to no one prior the British Crown taking possession of it. Aboriginal people therefore could not sell or assign the land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown... Although many people at the time also recognised that the Aboriginal occupants had rights in the lands (and this was confirmed in a House of Commons report on Aboriginal relations in 1837), the law followed and almost always applied the principles expressed in Bourke's proclamation. This would not change until the Australian High Court's decision in the Mabo Case in 1992." 
  4. ^ Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899, published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University
  5. ^ Michael Connor in The Bulletin (Sydney), 20 August 2003: (see further Connor 2005.)
  6. ^ "Australasian Legal Information Institute". AustLII. Retrieved 2010-06-08. 
  7. ^ Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971) 17 FLR 141
  8. ^ "A Short Commentary on Land Claims in BC". Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. Retrieved 2010-06-08. 
  9. ^ http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/149/17306.pdf page 28, between Tong-Tong & Tao astronomical markers
  10. ^ Central Intelligence Agency. CIA World Factbook 2009 MobileReference, 2009. ISBN 1607783339
  11. ^ "Complete Files of Geographic Names for Geopolitical Areas from GNS". Toponymic information is based on the Geographic Names Database, containing official standard names approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names and maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. More information is available at the Maps and Geodata link at http://www.nga.mil. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency name, initials, and seal are protected by 10 United States Code Section 425. Retrieved 2013-02-20. 
  12. ^ National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. "GeoNames WMS Viewer". Retrieved 2013-02-20. 
  13. ^ a b Krogh, Jan. "Jan S. Krogh's Geosite: Enclave/exclave of Brezovica". Retrieved 2013-03-12. 
  14. ^ "Dronning Maud Land". Norwegian Polar Institute. Retrieved 31 August 2011. 
  15. ^ Friday, Jul. 25, 1969 (1969-07-25). "A 1969 Time article". Time.com. Retrieved 2010-06-08. 

External links[edit]