Editor’s Note: This article discusses the history of the land on which Liberland has been founded, as well as how it would be in the best interest of the regional powers for Liberland to be recognized as a sovereign state.
When a country does not claim an area of land, it falls under the international legal principle of terra nullius. This legal concept’s Latin name roughly translates to “no man’s land”. While ‘no man’s land’ as a concept has existed forever, the legal term was coined in times past when countries were laying claims to Antarctica and Australia. To be classified as terra nullius, a plot of land must either have never been claimed by a sovereign nation or have been formally given up by a nation whom previously claimed it. As Antarctica currently has treaties that bar countries from claiming it, many assume that the last true example of terra nullius has been claimed. After all, it seems that every available terrain in the world has been either claimed or barred from claiming. Or has it?
A modern example of terra nullius can be found in the Siga, a plot of land located between Croatia and Serbia. The two countries agree that the Danube River’s flow marks the border between the nations, however, Croatia and Serbia disagree on one key factor – whether the border is in line with the current or the historical path of the river.
Each side has chosen the view that gives them the most land, with Croatia claiming the historical and Serbia the current. This has left the Gornja Siga a riverfront piece of land, unclaimed (with the exception of the claim of the Free Republic of Liberland since April 2015) as both sides believe the other should hold it.
Since neither country believes the Siga is theirs, both Serbia and Croatia have given up their claim, rendering the land terra nullius. The countries have not just implicitly given up their claim; they have announced that they do not own the land. Croatia claims that the land belongs to Serbia; however, Serbia disagrees. While Croatia currently stations police on the land under the guise of protecting the land for Serbia, this act does not negate terra nullius because Serbia insists it does not have, and does not want to have ownership of it. The land sat unclaimed for over 25 years. According to international legal precedent, the land has been terra nullius, whether the two nations would like to admit it or not.
Terra nullius can be problematic, as anyone can legally claim land that falls under it. Any country on earth could enter and assert control over that land. There is little stopping a large country from claiming the land or fabricating a historic claim to it. This is currently happening across the globe and could easily happen in the Gornja Siga.
After the Second World War, Japan was forced to give up its claim to much of its empire. This resulted some land entering a state of uncertainty, specifically small, uninhabited islands in the South China Sea. The treaty did not clarify which countries subjugated by Japan would own what and many of these islands were already disputed before Japan was even involved. These current disputes now involve China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, with China asserting its claim most aggressively. Like the Gornja Siga, these islands are uninhabited, making any terra nullius claims even stronger. The situation in the South China Sea is different from that of the Gornja Siga, as multiple nations are simultaneously asserting conflicting ownership claims. Unfortunately, this may soon also be the case in the Gornja Siga. The longer this land remains unoccupied, the more likely a situation like that of the South China Sea is to arise.
One of the reasons that countries seek control over the islands in the South China Sea is the region’s strategic importance. While the Gornja Siga is not as economically significant as the trade-heavy South China Sea, the region is extremely politically important.
The Gornja Siga is on the border of the EU; Croatia is an EU member state, and in the middle of NATO territory. From a geopolitical perspective, while Croatia and Serbia are not generally targets for bullying, the EU and NATO both are. Russia, China or the United States could benefit from a land claim over the Gornja Siga to further exert power over Western Europe and the international waterway that borders the region, The Danube. It should be noted that, while the Gornja Siga is small, it is not so small that a missile silo cannot be built on it.
The Gornja Siga is a liability to the stability of the Balkans and the safety of the EU. The issue likely will not be resolved on its own, as Croatia and Serbia have let this issue sit unresolved for decades while making no progress. Neither country intends to claim the land because of concerns that doing so would stir up another border conflict in the region. Although the two nations are no longer at war, it will not take much for another widespread conflict to arise. This reality inevitably strengthens the legal argument that the land should be considered terra nullius. Neither side is willing to negotiate, and the land continues to sit empty. However, there may be a way for the Gornja Siga to be relieved from its instability without Serbia and Croatia being forced to bargain unwillingly.
In 2015, the Gornja Siga was claimed by a libertarian organization which seeks to create a country called Free Republic of Liberland. This microstate currently has a working government and emphasizes principles of democracy and freedom. The government intends to use blockchain technology to ensure transparency within its voting system and to ensure checks and balances. Liberland’s president, Vít Jedlička, has become an international spokesperson for transparent governance. Liberland’s main goal is to promote freedom and economic growth within the region.
While Liberland has already had around six hundred thousand people apply for citizenship online, The Free Republic of Liberland currently exists in limbo. The government serves in exile, due to Croatia’s blockading its access to the land. While the organization does have foreign representative offices and an active government, Liberland’s recognition as a state may remain only an aspiration until the country can assert its sovereignty through having a physical presence on the land. Taking physical possession of the land will not be an easy task — it will require enormous diplomatic and legal efforts. Currently, Croatia arrests anyone who enters into the Gornja Siga.
What Croatia does not realize is that Liberland could be the perfect solution for the Gornja Siga’s instability. Liberland does not intend to cause any trouble in the area, despite Croatia’s assumptions to the contrary. Liberland’s minarchist government would pose less of a threat than large foreign powers with stakes in the region. Liberland also has no desire to be a military threat, nor to even have an army in the first place.
Economically, a country with land elsewhere would likely not invest in the Gornja Siga. It is uninhabited marshland that would be disconnected from their trade network. It would not make sense for the country to grow the area economically when there are far more suitable places to put infrastructure in their homeland. Even if Serbia or Croatia decided between the two of them within whose borders the land exists, the area would likely remain as it is because there are simply easier places to develop. On the other hand, Liberland would have no option but to invest in the Gornja Siga. They are already working with surrounding communities to try to grow their trade network. As a hub of commerce itself, with nearby communities with existing infrastructure, such as Apatin and Sombor in Serbia and Osijek and Vukovar in Croatia, Liberland would expand trade in the entire region.
Under Terra Nullius, the Liberland government asserts that their claim to the land is completely legal and should be respected by Croatia and Serbia. Liberland’s proponents also believe that recognizing Liberland’s claim to the Gornja Siga is the best way for both neighboring countries to resolve their regional stalemate and reduce risks of foreign intervention.
Moreover, Croatia is knowingly breaking international laws each time it exercises false sovereignty over the Gornja Siga while simultaneously claiming they do not own it. Croatia has no legal right to arrest Liberland’s citizens when they attempt to enter and settle the Gornja Siga. Even if Croatian police were correct in asserting that the land belongs to Serbia, they would have no authority to arrest the citizens of Liberland in Serbia, especially when Serbia’s official comment is that the new state does not infringe upon their borders. This legal dilemma for Croatia only further exemplifies a need to fix the issue of where Gornja Siga lies.
To leave this dispute undecided any longer is extremely dangerous because the longer the land goes unclaimed, the more entities may attempt to take advantage of the terra nullius. Recognizing Liberland’s dream of creating a small, economically productive, transparent nation on the Danube may be the best option for solving Croatia’s and Serbia’s terra nullius problem. Other entities that may benefit from the land may not have such pure intentions.
About The Authors
Sarah Habermaas – Sarah Habermaas is a student of political science at Brigham Young University- Idaho. Habermaas is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, where she will be returning to pursue a legal education this coming fall. She currently works as an intern for the Free Republic of Liberland. Sarah identifies as a liberal and is a registered Democrat. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Liberland.
Steven Melnik – Steven Melnik is an Amazon #1 best-selling author in multiple categories, international keynote speaker, distinguished professor, and professional success coach who conducts his Happiness Amplified™ Corporate Events globally and online. Mr. Melnik is also an attorney, CPA, U.S. financial industry regulatory advisor, the president of a national bar association, and an advisor to various government entities and non-profit organizations worldwide. Mr. Melnik has appeared on practically every major U.S. news network and for his work has been recognized by U.S. Federal, State and City elected officials, as well as by the United Nations-based entities. Melnik has been appointed as a Global Honorary Ambassador-at-large of the Free Republic of Liberland. You can find more information on Mr. Melnik by visiting HappinessAmplified.com
Kirsten Pomales – US based political consultant.
Joseph Langenbrunner – Ohio/DC Representative of Liberland.
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