(Written for a Public Law & Judicial Process [GOVT301] class at George Mason University.)
One of the most fascinating issues to ever deal with international law first graced the floor of a British courtroom on November 25, 1968. A former English major Paddy Roy Bates was charged with various violations of British law after being captured about seven nautical miles off the eastern coast of England by a vessel of the British navy.
You see, in late 1967 Roy Bates and his family had occupied a small, man-made fortress which had been erected by the government of the United Kingdom during World War II to defend the nation against German air raids. This particular fortress, Fort Roughs Tower, rested outside of the 3 nautical mile territorial waters of the UK and had been abandoned by its government.
Roy Bates, declaring this fortress the “Principality of Sealand” and himself its prince, had fired warning shots toward the ‘invading’ British navy ship and was subsequently detained and charged with violations, primarily, of UK firearms law. On November 25, 1968, this case came before a court in Chelmsford, Essex, and was dismissed on the grounds that the court had no jurisdiction outside of British territory1.
With a de facto claim to sovereignty based on this court decision (and some similar decisions more recently), Sealand is still around today largely absent of any outside law or regulation. The legal issues regarding this man-made island are numerous and complex, as they force us to question the very concepts of national sovereignty and authority.
After extending their territorial waters to about 12 knotical miles in 1987, the United Kingdom today claims that Sealand is British property subject to British law.2 The Sealand government—which issues currency, stamps, and passports3—asserts that in 1987 it simultaneously extended its territorial waters to 12 knotical miles, and in compliance with international norms the overlapping area between their waters and the UK waters would be split evenly (though they admit no treaty has been drafted to this effect).4
The most recent incarnation of this virtually sovereign micronation is indeed something more “virtual” than almost anybody would have guessed. ‘Prince’ Michael Bates, Roy’s son, has partnered with Anguilla based HavenCo, Ltd. to become a provider of secure internet server space safe from the prying eyes of any government (excluding that of Sealand itself, of course).
The idea is, of course, rooted in the concepts of Libertarianism. Any electronic commerce conducted on Sealand servers are free from the police and free from the taxation agencies. This “data haven”, protected by armed guards and a radar defense system, isolated in the North Sea with an arguably valid claim to sovereignty, makes many nations attempting to grapple legally with the information age quite nervous—particularly Sealand’s immediate neighbor, the United Kingdom.5
Shortly after the announcement of this project, a gentleman by the name of Paul John Lilburne-Byford presented to the Chelmsford, Essex Magistrates’ Court a series of complaints against Roy Bates. These complaints included primarily twelve counts of violating various provisions of the UK Firearms Acts 1968-1997. These have not been followed up.6
The difficulty that any nation faces enforcing any laws on people in this nearly indefinable place is that Sealand has, in effect, been granted sovereignty by past decisions of the courts of the United Kingdom. Once recognizing the sovereignty of such a place, it cannot be reneged upon. Despite Britain’s claims to the contrary, HavenCo and the Bates family operate untaxed and free from British control on the island of Sealand.
So the questions regarding to Sealand’s sovereignty are these: Can a nation be formed on land which is entirely man-made? Can anybody claim land which is, for all intents and purposes, abandoned? Can a nation acquire (or reacquire) a man-made fortress simply by arbitrarily expanding its territorial waters?
On these three questions rest a labyrinth of conflicting opinion and the attempts of law to cover an entirely unique situation. For example, the initial decisions in Roy Bates’ favor may have been flawed. Since the UK government built Fort Roughs Tower in 1942, would this not then default to UK control? But on the contrary, Britain had left this fortress entirely abandoned for over twenty years. One of the basic tenets of sovereignty is that the sovereign body exercises its control over its territory, and the British government failed to do this.
That said, another basic tenet of sovereignty is that the sovereign must be recognized by other states. While de facto recognition has come through British courts and even once through the German government, no nation officially recognizes Sealand as an independent nation.7 This stands against the claims of Roy Bates and his family.
Perhaps the fate of little Sealand is completely inconsequential in the big picture of international law and politics, but the issue of national sovereignty will likely remain an issue of debate in legal circles worldwide. As laws regarding internet technology become more restrictive, people in search of nearly unrestricted havens like Sealand will continue to establish similar experiments in extra-national territory.
Sealand, arguably in British waters, illustrates the current inability of law to deal with this kind of behavior. While Sealand does restrict the activities on its servers, prohibiting child pornography and certain other behaviors, other micronations or statelets may not be so limiting. The possibility of creating a tax haven, or money-laundering facility, based entirely on a moving ship or a tiny island outside of any national controls seems more and more realistic with every passing year and new technology.
Roy Bates may have been a trend setter, and his fascinating experiment into questioning the limitations and meaning of sovereignty and law should not be ignored. The possibilities in this world are nearly infinite, and law only has a finite ability to keep up.
1 History as explained on The Principality of Sealand website, http://www.sealandgov.com/history.html, 2002.
June 5, 2000.