Will Dooling, MJLST Staffer
This February, students at the University of Minnesota fought record snowfalls and low temperatures. A lot of us are dreaming of running away to a tropical island somewhere, or buying one and starting our own country. Today, we explore “seasteading,” the practice of founding a sovereign nation on the high seas, usually on a floating platform, or a remote private island.
Sovereign nations have already claimed every large island, and every part of the ocean even remotely near shore. As such, seasteading requires a would-be nation-builder to either construct a new island on a deep ocean seamount or build a floating platform from scratch. Both are remarkably challenging and costly feats of engineering. Even very generous estimates put the cost of a freestanding deep-sea platform capable of supporting a few residents at $50 million. The other challenge, of course, is supplying the community’s inhabitants with food, water, and electricity. While a seasteader could try imaginative solutions ranging from self-sufficient algae farms to enormous solar-powered desalination systems, the practical startup cost of such an operation is utterly enormous.
The attraction is obvious, though, largely thanks to the persistent myth that once safely in international waters on a floating platform or a private island, no laws will apply. It is certainly true that Article 2 of the 1958 UN Convention on the High Seas prohibits any signatory from claiming sovereignty over the high seas, and Article 57 of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea limits the exclusive economic zone of any nation (the region of the sea over which that nation has total sovereign control) to no more than “200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.” However, these limitations have never seriously prevented the United States, for example, from carrying out law enforcement activities to prevent “acts done outside a geographic jurisdiction, but which produce detrimental effects within it[.]” United States v. Smith, 680 F.2d 255, 258 (1st Cir. 1982). This means that the most tempting uses of a seastead—an offshore casino, a drug den, or a tax haven—are unworkable. One of the only law review articles to seriously examine seasteading puts it bluntly: “Given the United States’ penchant for exercising jurisdiction thousands of miles from its coastlines, not even the territorial seas of other nations may be sufficient to protect a seastead from American jurisdiction.”
A few innovative souls have tried semi-serious attempts to start a sovereign nation on the high seas, but none have quite succeeded. In the 1970s, real estate tycoon Michael Oliver spent millions of dollars attempting to found a sovereign state on a cluster of reefs in the South Pacific, about 250 miles from the island nation of Tonga. He dubbed his project the “Republic of Minerva.” Oliver created his own currency, flag, and declaration of independence from Tonga, but his project ultimately failed when Tongan king Taufa’ahau Tupou, and a construction crew, arrived and dissembled Oliver’s early construction work on the reefs. Oliver then abandoned the project.
Similarly, from 1976 to 2010, pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates made periodic attempts to claim a World War II era anti-aircraft platform situated in the North Sea as a sovereign nation. Sealand, like the Republic of Minerva, has its own currency, constitution, and even its own national anthem. Sealand also sells titles of nobility. British pop star Ed Sheeran, for example, is a Baron of Sealand. Unlike the Republic of Minerva, Sealand is still going strong, and purportedly celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, but only two people live there permanently.
Currently, the largest promoter of seasteading is the libertarian-aligned Seasteading institute, an organization that hopes to build utopian communities of artificial islands set in international waters, though critics charge that the project is largely an attempt to bypass regulation (and taxation) that its members find inconvenient. In 2017, the government of French Polynesia briefly flirted with the idea of allowing the Seasteading Institute to establish an experimental economic seazone in their territorial waters, though the deal ultimately seems to have fallen through.
While no one has successfully gotten a self-sufficient seasteading community afloat, the dream is completely understandable. Once we get better at deep-water construction and remote power generation, it may actually be possible. Until then, it remains a dream, though one that is relatable and understandable in the depths of a Minnesota winter, at least until Tonga invades.