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Err, no

“Here,” I had been telling my children, “where you see the red flag with the eagle, is Albania. And over there,” I added, pointing at the other flag, blue with white stripes, a few hundred metres in the distance, “is Greece.”

“But where are we now?”, the six-year-old asked. The tortoise was slowly trailing behind us, through what is sometimes referred to as terra nullius, a portion of territory that does not belong to any state and that usually demarcates two bordering jurisdictions.

No, that zone between two border posts is not terra nullius. Actually, it’s entirely and wholly the opposite. Terra nullius is land belonging to no one. With the attached insistence that therefore anyone can go occupy it. Try occupying the area between two border posts – see?

Lea Ypi is a professor in political theory at the London School of Economics,


15 thoughts on “Err, no”

  1. Bloke in North Dorset

    I always assumed that border posts were set back from the actual border for ease of build, to avoid actual border disputes where the border isn’t a feature and to avoid border guards falling out etc, but that there isn’t really a no man’s land.

  2. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communsm, enterprising chaps set up shops in the ( hopefully unmined ) no-man’s land between Austria and Czechoslovakia. They flogged duty free booze and fags and ladies… ahem.. services were also available.

    When I left Austria, the nearest one to me between Retz and Znaim, called Excalibur was about to celebrate 25 years in business.

  3. Here’s a tortoise I found crossing the Albanian border. It should be that easy for all of us

    Ah, yes, the greatest prospect an Albanian ever sees: the road that leads out of Albania.

  4. Lea Ypi is a professor of political theory especially theory that she has just made up.
    There is no gap between borders, just between border posts. “No man’s land” was the area between two armies w.g on the Western Front and has nothing to do with the doctrine of “terra nullius”.
    By the end of the 45 years ofCommunist rule more Albanians lived outside Albania in the neighbouring countries than inside Albania so it is not true that any Albanian crossing the bordeer would be shot – just the few who were stupid enough to do it within sight of a border guard without bribing him first. The mountainous region bordering Kosovo has many miles without a single road coming in sight of the border – there is only one major and two minor roads crossing that border which is over a hundred miles long – so Kosovo became an Albania-majority region.

  5. Bloke in the Fourth Reich

    So is this one of those “we are of differing views on has this few hundred metres of desolate wasteland because various Hapsburg era treaties dont quite agree with each other, but we have a gentleman agreement to not take the matter further at this time. Both Greek and Albanian goatherds may graze unmolested”

  6. ‘ sometimes referred to as terra nullius,’

    Isn’t that the political ‘centre ground’ in which so-called Centre-Left and Centre-Right clutch each other and dance around imagining that’s where voters live?

  7. There used to be a wee patch of ground at the western end of the Scotland/England border called The Debatable Land (apparently meaning good land for fattening cattle). Anyway, the two realms agreed that (i) it belonged to neither, and (ii) no people, and no cattle, were to be there between sunset and sunrise.

    This worked for a few centuries until it became overrun by bandits and the two kingdoms agreed to divide it up. Later, in the time of James VI & I, the King decided he wanted local troublemakers put down. His Majesty’s English government arrested a bunch of Grahams and expelled them to Ireland. His Majesty’s Scottish government arrested a bunch of Armstrongs and hanged them.

    These brutal actions proved entirely successful.

  8. There’s an island in the mouth of the Bidasoa river that flips between France and Spain every six months because they couldn’t agree on who owns it. And Lake Constance is a mess: Switzerland says the border lies down the middle, Austria says that it’s a condominium (i.e., joint sovereignty), and Germany doesn’t seem to know.

  9. Bloke in the Fourth Reich

    There is an odd one between Basel SBB (Swiss station) and Basel SNCF, the French station, which is actually just a few platforms in the west of Basel SBB. You used to be able to walk through from one to the other quite easily, but last time I was there the entrance through the station and the entrance from the street were guarded by French police, and no one was allowed (well, not me anyway) into the French part of the station without a ticket for a train to France.*

    The German station, Basel Bad, is entirely within/surrounded by Switzerland but I believe some kind of legal exclave. Most trains from Germany now go through to SBB and onwards to other places in Switzerland.

    * Work (used to) take me to Basel pretty regularly, and you can end up spending time waiting for a train home with very little to do, in one of the least interesting parts** of the planet.

    ** There is a really great off-license at the station.

  10. “Percys and Douglases”: I don’t know. The account I read was fascinating but limited: for instance, I didn’t learn who got to graze the land, who determined their stints, who was meant to police the all-out-by-sunset policy, who was meant to police against rustling, and so on. But the two kingdoms didn’t fight over sovereignty since they’d agreed that neither owned it. Even the division in two went as amicably as could be expected – i.e. with negotiations and grumbling but no warfare.

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