Every supervillain or supervillain organization worth its salt needs a secret lair, and a location outside the jurisdiction of any government would be ideal. The legal benefits are numerous: no pesky employment laws or civil rights for henchmen, no local police, no taxes. But in the age of air travel and GPS is there anywhere left for a supervillain to set up shop? Here we consider three possibilities: unclaimed land, the high seas, and outer space.
I. Unclaimed Land
You may be surprised to learn that there are a (very) few places left on Earth that are unclaimed by any sovereign nation. Perhaps the most reasonable is Bir Tawil, a 770 square mile stretch of desert between the borders of Egypt and Sudan. There isn’t a whole lot there, but at least it’s relatively close to more interesting places, and the neighbors are probably too concerned with their own problems to care about a supervillain moving in next door.
The other major possibility is Marie Byrd Land, which is part of Antarctica. At over 620,000 square miles it’s comparable in size to Mongolia or Iran and would be the 19th largest country in the world if it were one. While no countries lay claim to this land, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 expressly prohibits “any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications.” Although a supervillain, as a private entity, would not be bound by the treaty, that language might provide the basis for joint military action to oust a supervillain operating out of Antarctica. The treaty does state that “Antarctica…shall not become the scene or object of international discord,” but it is doubtful that such language would give the signatory nations much pause before launching the cruise missiles.
A third possibility is purchasing an island from a sovereign nation, but it may be difficult to convince the owner to give up all claim to the island. Ordinarily private islands like Richard Branson’s Necker Island still remain the sovereign territory of a nation (in that case the British Virgin Islands). But there are many impoverished island nations, and an enterprising supervillain may attempt to strike a Faustian bargain for sovereign territory.
Unfortunately, being stuck on land makes a supervillain an easy target, and unless the supervillain can gain international recognition and thus sovereign status, the base is likely to be attacked without legal repercussions. The main benefits here would be isolation and a lack of direct government oversight, not a legal shield against reprisal.
All in all, it would seem that actually setting up a permanent outpost without obscuring it in some way is going to be pretty tough. Unless the lair is constructed far underground or is somehow protected, a single pass by a BUFF can pretty much send any supervillain’s lair back to the stone age inside of twenty-four hours.
II. The High Seas
If no land is available or if mobility is a concern, then a supervillain can consider the oceans. The primary governing treaty is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gives some freedoms, including the right to build artificial constructs, but it also prohibits claims of sovereign territory, so a supervillain probably could not create a new floating nation. Still, as long as he avoided making territorial claims, there doesn’t seem to be any legal reason that a sufficiently large floating construct couldn’t just sail around forever.
Now, you might think that charges of piracy would be the biggest problem here. The Convention does require signatories to “cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.” But piracy is defined as
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).
Strictly speaking this would not seem to encompass the operation of a floating supervillain base as long as the supervillain only attacked targets that were not on the high seas or otherwise outside the jurisdiction of any State. But there are other problems for a seafaring supervillain, most particularly the lack of a national flag (presuming that a supervillain would not long be able to fly even a flag of convenience). Article 110 provides that a warship may board a foreign ship on the high seas if “there is reasonable ground for suspecting that…the ship is without nationality.” Worse than being hassled by passing warships, without the protection of a sovereign nation a supervillain would be fair game for outright destruction. As with a land base, a supervillain would still be vulnerable so long as the base could be found and tied to the supervillain’s nefarious activities. Considering that just about anything on the surface of the ocean sticks out like a sore thumb, staying hidden is going to be pretty difficult.
III. Outer Space
Outer space probably represents the best bet for a supervillain. Although the supervillain and his or her base would not have much in the way of direct legal protections in space or on the Moon, he or she would be protected indirectly by the Outer Space Treaty. The OST bans placing “in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ing] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” It further states that
The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited.
In the event of an actual supervillain taking up residence in outer space, these provisions would likely be ignored or repealed outright. However, the treaty has largely been respected in the past. The result is that space, especially outside of Earth orbit, is essentially unmilitarized (as far as we know). Beyond the technical difficulties of mounting an attack on a supervillain lair in space, the status quo means that the nations of Earth would be starting from scratch. This is a distinct advantage over a land or sea-based lair.
A supervillain with effectively unlimited resources would be best served by a base located in space, probably on the dark side of the Moon. A supervillain with significant but not-unlimited resources might be better off buying a private island or a slice of Bir Tawil, then keeping a low enough profile to avoid attracting attention (and airstrikes).