Territorial disputes between countries often can have severe, long-lasting and disastrous effects for the people living in or around the disputed territories. Tens of millions of people live in the territories of Jammu and Kashmir in the northern Himalayas which are disputed between India, Pakistan and China. The tense situation in Kashmir is often cited as a potential flashpoint for a third world war. The current territorial disputes between Sudan and South Sudan are born of decades of bloody civil war escalating into genocide. And the disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region last year escalated into all-out war in the Caucasus mountains.
Territorial disputes can often result in harsh conditions for people living in these areas. Many disputed territories are under military occupations, with civilians experiencing frequent interruptions in electrical and water services as well as state-sanctioned violence towards those who resist occupation. Because many of these disputes are born of conflict in the recent past many countries will also use them as pretexts to increase tensions against their neighbors, escalating conflict globally. Both the shadows and threats of war loom over these disputes, putting civilians across the entire world at risk.
But we’re not talking about those kinds of disputes today.
Today I’m writing about the ridiculous, and meaningless disputes between so-called “developed” countries with plenty of resources and diplomatic capabilities. I’m writing about the disputes over empty patches of land (or worse, coastal waters) with no inhabitants, no known resources and no strategic value. These disputes exist for their own sake, with many of them emerging from the remnants of dead and dying empires. These disputes are unlikely to start wars, but will continue to setbacks in the process for global peace, as their claimant nations will continue to fight over them for no other reason than to gain bargaining power later on.
And this time, to show I am expending no intellectual effort in this endeavor, I am presenting this article as an internet-friendly Buzzfeed-style list.
What is it? A bay in the mouth of the Ems river in Northern Europe.
Who disputes it? The Netherlands and Germany.
Why does it suck? The disputed territory has no land and has no resources and is between two nations that have existed long enough that they could have figured this out years ago. What’s there to like? The two nations decided decades ago to “agree to disagree” over a patch of coastal water neither of them actually needs in order to remain prosperous. Good ol’ European diplomacy at its most execrable.
What is it? A small island at the confluence of the Quarai and Uruguay rivers.
Who disputes it? Brazil and Uruguay.
Why does it suck? This island has had one resident in recent memory, a Brazilian man who moved away for health reasons in 2011. Bizarrely enough Uruguay and Brazil act as if there is no dispute on the island. Authorities from both countries coordinated to fight a fire that burned a portion of the island in 2009, and both countries participated in the ecological survey to study the damage the fire did to the island. The international cooperation around the island’s care makes this dispute almost not suck, but as long as on paper these two nations can’t decide how to share a tiny island in the middle of a river it will remain in the region of “suck.”
What is it? The isthmus of Gibraltar (not the entire peninsula) north of the Gibraltar airport.
Who disputes it? The UK and Spain.
Why does it suck? This would be a more dangerous dispute if Spain and the UK were clashing over the entire peninsula. However, Spain and the UK dispute the area around the airport, as this was not set by the Treaty of Utrecht which set the Gibraltar border in 1713. The implementation of Brexit is also complicating the border rules of Gibraltar and threatens to make crossing into and out of Gibraltar a bureaucratic nightmare for nearby residents. And all because the UK thinks the Burger King across the street should pay taxes to them and not Spain. England sucks as a rule and the Gibraltar dispute sucks as a result.
Juan de Nova Island & Others
What is it? A series of uninhabited islands in between Mozambique and Madagascar
Who disputes it? Madagascar and France
Why does it suck? No shade to Madagascar here, the suck in this dispute is entirely France’s fault. By no logical means can France call these islands its sovereign territory. Metropolitan France is a full continent and a half away, these islands have no value to France and France is doing nothing with them. Any sensible international organization (and we’re still trying to find one) would cut off these last vestiges of an unwanted and dying empire from France’s hands and maybe let the colonized nations have a chance at building something. No empires no longer, Paris.
What is it? A bay on the eastern shore of the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.
Who disputes it? France and the Netherlands.
Why does it suck? The existence of Belgium has not stopped the French and the Dutch from sharing a land border in the Caribbean. The land border is well defined, but what happens when it reaches Oyster Pond on the island’s eastern shore? Does it hug the northern coast like the Netherlands claims? Or does it go down the center of the bay like France claims? Better question: who cares? It stuns the imagination that two highly-developed European imperial powers need to argue over which of them gets the taxes from a single local pizza joint. Anyway, if you want something interesting on St. Maarten go check out its airport where, because the runway is so close to the beach, large aircraft make low landing passes over sunbathers. It’s pretty cool!
What is it? A rock sticking out of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Who disputes it? England, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark (through the Faroe Islands).
Why does it suck? Four major forces in Western Europe are clamoring for a rock covered in bird feces that sticks out of the ocean. It’s a rock with probably not enough flat surface on it to hold more than three humans on it at a time. Claiming this island contravenes international law, but since when has that ever stopped anybody? I’d be fooling myself if I thought this was just about the rock. This border dispute exists because of the probable deposits of North Sea oil underneath it. Any border dispute with wealthy states arguing over who gets to boost petrochemical output some marginal percent by definition sucks.
What is it? A pair of windswept rocks in the middle of the Sea of Japan.
Who disputes it? South Korea and Japan.
Why does it suck? It’s the same situation as Rockall, they’re just windswept barely-habitable rocks in the middle of the ocean with potential petrochemical deposits underneath. This dispute is inflamed by the tensions between Japan and South Korea, as the latter has suffered a number of historical abuses at the hands of the Japanese Empire. But the push for further and further exploitation of petrochemical resources (while the planet is actively being killed by petrochemical exploitation mind you) between two countries whose economies are not dependent on it does, in a word, suck.
What is it? An uninhabited island in the channel between Ellsmere Island and Greenland.
Who disputes it? Canada and Denmark (on behalf of Greenland).
Why does it suck? There’s nothing more depressing to me than two colonial powers arguing over empty land that they, by no natural rights, can claim to possess. The island, far into the Arctic Circle, has historically been used as a fishing outpost for local Inuit peoples. But to Canada and Denmark it is just a frozen, uninhabited, lifeless rock near the far northern end of the Earth. In 2018 the two countries convened a task force to determine once and for all the fate of the island’s sovereignty but no task force conclusion can undo the fact that Hans Island, like all the Americas, is stolen land. It will take a hell of a lot more than this task force to undo that.
Baja Nuevo Bank
What is it? A group of reefs with portions barely above water in the Southwest Caribbean
Who disputes it? Colombia, Nicaragua, Jamaica, the United States.
Why does it suck? This bank is barely above water. It has just enough land space for Colombia to build a single lighthouse. There are no known resources here, just a little spit of land that is partially exposed at low tide. The claims on this bank exist solely so countries can have something to fight over, should the need to fight arise. There is nothing but the open ocean surrounding this band for hundreds of miles. I imagine the United States is currently deciding if it’s okay for them to start island dredging after yelling at China for doing exactly that.
Machias Seal Island
What is it? A small rocky island in the Gulf of Maine between Machias and Grand Manan Island.
Who disputes it? United States and Canada.
Why does it suck? I’ve saved the best for last. The United States and Canada, marketing themselves as having the warmest international relations of any two nations cannot agree who owns a small island at the back end of either country. Both countries acknowledge the island’s importance as a sanctuary for migratory seabirds, most notably the Atlantic puffin. In fact, the United States allows a charter boat company based out of Cutler, ME (with an amazingly basic HTML website) to send tourists to visit the island. To solidify its claim Canada has built a lighthouse and continues to send keeper staff to man it (the lighthouse is automated, by the way.) The United States, in return, doesn’t recognize the existence of the lighthouse. This claim has “suck” written all over it as long as the US and Canada are involved, and are continuing to be endlessly petty in enforcing their claims. My advice? Give the island to the puffins. They deserve a break.
What does it all mean?
I’m personally fascinated by petty border disputes because of the dissonance between how governments in the so-called “developed” world market themselves as public intellectuals of high conscience and exemplary efficiency, and the reality of them behaving like petty children robbed of their favorite toy. Except for that the claims they make are tiny and inconsequential to the majority of each nations’ populace. Your average American would never have even heard of Machias Seal Island, much less recite the geopolitics of it. But these countries hold onto control of each and every square millimeter of space because in their minds concessions in one area lead to concessions in others, creating a slippery slope which can only lead to the end of national sovereignty as we know it. And although a stateless borderless globe is highly desirable to those of us on the left, the logic that every minor concession leads to bigger, more consequential ones is false.
The disputes also arise because of the conception of land ownership in Western societies that extols the development and exploitation of land as a commodified resource. The Earth is a living thing like all of us in that the Earth has complex interlocking systems which, if one is thrown out of balance, can cause devastation to all the others. Hegemonic western powers have almost universally rejected this fact, believing instead that Earth can be partitioned consequence-free into zones of natural exploitation, in service of neoliberal economic growth. Additionally the growth neoliberal economists crave is increasingly disconnected from actual human need, hence why food manufacturing companies can take in billions of dollars in revenue while hundreds of millions of people across the globe suffer from hunger. If these same countries and cultures transformed such that they prioritized human need as well as a healthy symbiosis with Earth’s natural systems, then perhaps these governments might see it as beneficial, even virtuous to let these disputed areas and the people who depend on them simply be.
- https://theconversation.com/kashmir-conflict-is-not-just-a-border-dispute-between-india-and-pakistan-112824 – Kashmir conflict and discussion
- https://www.dw.com/en/can-sudan-and-south-sudan-find-friendship/a-51255829 – south Sudan conflict
- https://www.nytimes.com/article/armenian-azerbaijan-conflict.html – The Nagorno-Karabakh War
- https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/trb-2014-182.html – Dutch government announcement of a Dollart-related agreement, in Dutch
- https://web.archive.org/web/20160304041854/http://www.centralsuldejornais.com.br/IndexNoticia.asp?idNoticia=113782 – Article on Ilha Brasileira, in Portuguese
- http://www.exteriores.gob.es/portal/en/politicaexteriorcooperacion/gibraltar/paginas/historia.aspx – Gibraltar Isthmus dispute history
- https://user.iiasa.ac.at/~marek/fbook/04/geos/ju.html – Juan de Nova Island information
- http://www.soualigapost.com/en/news/6397/coop%C3%A9ration/border-oyster-pond-reason-behind-another-conflict – Oyster Pond description
- https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/who-owns-rockall-a-history-of-disputes-over-a-tiny-atlantic-island-1.3919668 – Rockall Island
- https://www.cntraveler.com/story/why-the-liancourt-rocks-are-some-of-the-most-disputed-islands-in-the-world – Liancourt Rocks
- https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/08/world/what-in-the-world/canada-denmark-hans-island-whisky-schnapps.html – Hans Island and the Whiskey War (article is from 2016 so it’s slightly outdated)
- https://buzz-caribbean.com/news/bajo-nuevo-what-you-should-know-about-the-island-dispute-jamaica-gave-up/ – Bajo Nuevo Bank
- https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2018/07/22/machias-seal-island-dispute – Machias Seal Island dispute
Some Other Things…
So… if you translate source #4 from Dutch to English the content of the announcement sounds like the border dispute has been resolved. I looked into it and found that it was only part of the dispute that was resolved in 2014, concerning an offshore wind farm that had been part of the dispute before then. I’m adding this note as a clarification note for anyone who either speaks or has put in the effort to translate Dutch.