Starting Your Own Island Country
“Let’s blow this fascist popsicle stand! Purchase a small island somewhere, and start our own country.” – Montgomery Burns
People thinking about forming their own nation often turn to islands: they appeal to people’s sense of dominion, and their borders are clear. One just might get away from it all, and start something new.
But a new island country requires an island, and citizens, and there difficulties begin.
Four problems are paramount:
1. There are no undiscovered or unclaimed islands—with one partial exception.
2. Existing countries are quite protective of their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
3. There is no recognized process for forming your own country, and it comes essentially down to power.
4. It is difficult to obtain a population for a startup country.
Solutions….and more problems
People have tried to get around these problems in a variety of ways.
Problem 1: No undiscovered islands
● Since existing islands are claimed, some conclude that they should just build new ones.
● However, it is quite difficult to find suitable places that do not fall under some kind of national jurisdiction. If you are making your own land, it has to be outside countries’ territorial waters (generally 12 miles offshore) and exclusive economic zones (generally 200 miles from land)—and there is little or no shallow water outside of such zones. For instance, the would-be Principality of New Utopia is planned for the Misteriosa Bank in the Caribbean—but it seems to be in the Exclusive Economic Zones of both Honduras and the Cayman Islands (UK). Both countries have signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, which gives them power to regulate new island creation.
● The partial exception to the dearth of unclaimed territory is Antarctica, which is essentially international, with nations’ territorial claims effectively suspended. But the continent is supervised by all the most powerful countries on the planet, and they would not let a startup country grab some of it.
● (There is a cheat to the land problem, in the eyes of the island purist: build a floating island city—there are several schemes kicking around. But these would be mere ships, in truth. And there is the oil rig solution, notably represented by “Sealand,” a surplus-gun-platform “country” off the coast of England.)
Problem 2: Existing countries want their islands
● You can buy islands in many countries, but that means that you are a landowner, not a separate country.
● While most countries will not surrender sovereignty over a piece of land, it might be possible to find one so poor or corrupt that it would do so. Some right-wing Americans thought Haiti fit the bill a couple of decades ago, and attempted to buy the Île de la Tortue (Tortuga Island) off the northern coast. They were going to form the usual libertarian paradise, but even Haiti proved insufficiently abject to fall for the scheme. (The fate of thousands of Haitians already living on the island was unclear.)
● You can try to take an island by force, but fortunately for the small states of the Pacific and the Caribbean there are powerful countries that prevent that sort of thing.
Problem 3: No process for forming new countries
● The best solution is to become a leader in an island that might like to break away from its country: Nevis, of St. Kitts-Nevis, for instance. The separate islands of the Comoros have each achieved substantial autonomy under their own leaders in recent years. And East Timor has made the transition to sovereign nation.
● You still need recognition from the international community. And that requires sympathy, triggered by oppression of your little island, or at least popular support for its breaking away.
● Barring that, you can try to seize an island nation whole. This has been attempted by mercenaries in the Comoros (with some success), Vanuatu, and the Maldives. Once again, it runs into the problem of great power protectors.
Problem 4: Need for citizens
● The breakaway inhabited island solves this problem, but otherwise you have to convince people to come live on your island.
● Build-your-own-island schemes typically dangle libertarian freedom as their lure.
● Forming your own cult is promising. A breakaway Mormon sect in the mid-19th century took this route, briefly declaring Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to be their kingdom. But cults tend to be unstable and draw the attention of authorities quickly.
So starting your own island country is not easy. As a consolation, you might buy one of the many uninhabited islands in a tolerant country such as the US, Britain, or Canada and declare your own “nation.” If you don’t cross certain legal lines, you may get away with a lot.
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© 1995-2011 Joshua Calder
Contact Joshua Calder at calder.josh[at]gmail.com with questions or suggestions.
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