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Monday, July 16, 2018

Speak easy: Into the Great Wide Open

X marks the spot as private players seek nationhood and kingdoms on earth and in space.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: December 2, 2017 12:36:42 am
suyash dixit King without a crown: Suyash Dixit with his flag in the no-man’s land between Egypt and Sudan.

Last week, there was an international incident in the no-man’s land between Egypt and Sudan, when Indore resident Suyash Dixit planted his flag on it and declared nationhood. He is apparently trying to get the United Nations to recognise his claim, since two other flag-planters preceded him — a Russian ham radio operator, and an American who needed to be king for the specific purpose of making his daughter a princess.

While Dixit’s story was widely reported as a novelty, he is only the latest frontiersman to seek out his own slice of the great open spaces. He stands on the shoulders of giants who, tired of serfhood to the governments they were born under, cast off moorings and founded micronations.

In the future, there will be more Dixits, driven by the entry of private players in the space race. Traditionally, Mars has been perceived as the appropriate site of pioneering off-Earth colonies; and planets are perceived to be weightier and more prestigious than satellites. But how would the law work out there? As Andy Weir (author of The Martian) points out in his new novel Artemis (Del Rey), in which the moon is colonised, maritime law would provide the easiest template from which the laws of jurisdiction in space may be developed.

It governs the 70-odd per cent of the earth’s surface which does not come under national laws, and under it, the world has seen the development of instruments that range from the very useful (passports) to the absolutely outrageous (freebooting). The evolution of the law of jurisdiction in space and on planets promises to be interesting.

Some of the most interesting micronations on earth were set up at sea, where there is uncertain jurisdiction or none at all under maritime law. Artificial islands are hot favourites. In the Sixties, the Republic of Rose Island was built off Rimini in the Adriatic on an artificial platform by the architect Giorgio Rosa, complete with a post office, a nightclub, bar and restaurant. The Italian government was willing to tolerate this tax-free tourist trap but when Rosa declared independence, the spoilsports sent a warship to blow up his republic.

The Republic of Minerva, built on a reclaimed island off Tonga by an American real estate tycoon in 1972, was conceived as a libertarian haven with neither taxes nor welfare. Eventually, the Tongans asserted sovereignty. Minerva was lost because its citizens did not fight for their territory, unlike the family of Paddy Roy Bates, founder of the Principality of Sealand, which repelled boarders — whether the competition or the government — with firearms and petrol bombs.

Things had come to a head when Radio Caroline, the pirate station which used to broadcast from five ships, tried to storm Sealand in 1967. Naval vessels which dropped by to see what the fuss was all about were also fired upon. But Sealand is on a World War II anti-aircraft gun platform off the coast of Suffolk, and the UK courts refused to prosecute the Bates clan for gun crimes for lack of jurisdiction.

Bates was a retired major who had seen action in Italy in World War II before he turned pirate broadcaster, and owner of the world’s most unusual real estate. Though he died in 2012, his principality remains intact and celebrated 50 years of independence on August 14. The focus of piracy has shifted, driven by the rise of digital communications.

In Bates’ time, the chosen act of defiance was to broadcast music in violation of the intellectual property rights regime of the record labels. Now, it signifies illegal hosting and downloading of copyrighted material and in 2007, The Pirate Bay tried to buy Sealand after Sweden cracked down on its operations there.

In the future, there will be many more Paddy Bateses. Enforcement would be ridiculously expensive in space, and a rash of micronations may rise in the vacuum. On earth, this long tradition has been tolerated by governments, so long as their sovereignty is not challenged.

But out there, nations may actually endorse micronations to further their agendas, as freebooters were once licensed to use arms to protect the trade interests of their nations of affiliation, and operated as irregular navies.

The scientific community is agreed that the world is not yet ready for science fiction. Establishing colonies on Mars with sizeable populations would be prohibitively expensive and complicated with present technology, and the only immediate returns would be scientific. Spacefaring nations may find it more expedient to tolerate or even promote the frontier spirit to establish bridgeheads. And anyway, national territorial imperatives which make it hard for them to ignore micronations on earth would not apply. In space, there is by definition absolutely no lack of space.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

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