Superheroes and International Law II: Unusual Sovereignties

A little while ago we talked about some international law issues related to S.H.I.E.L.D. This time we’re going to talk about the stories where superpowered characters wind up actually running countries, and some of them quite peculiar countries at that.

The basic question here is “What constitutes a sovereign state?” The answer is basically “What other sovereign states recognize to be sovereign states.” If that seems a little circular it’s because it is: as a defined legal concept, sovereignty dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War between just about everybody in Europe. Still, this is definitely know-it-when-you-see-it territory. In fact, territory, literally speaking, is probably something that’s required. Sovereign states may hem and haw over whether or not they recognize a particular institution or set of institutions as being sovereign over a particular piece of real estate, but it’s very, very unlikely that sovereignty is going to be recognized in a government that has no exclusive physical control over a discrete land area. Indeed, having that exclusive control is basically all you need to be a de facto state.

I. “Normal” States

With that said, there are a number of comic book stories that involve sovereign states of one sort or another. Some of these are pretty unremarkable, legally speaking. Latveria, ruled by Doctor Doom, is a fictional nation in the Marvel universe carved out of Romania and Serbia, mostly the former. During Dr. Doom’s rule it was a dictatorship/absolute monarchy, a form of government which, while increasingly unfashionable today, does still exist. Latveria, for all intents and purposes, is just another small European nation unfriendly to US interests. It stands with half a dozen or so other nations in that respect, including Serbia and some of the former Soviet republics, depending on how the winds are blowing on any given weekday. But Latveria is presumably official recognized by the United States and other modern governments, and if Neil Gaiman’s 1602 is any indication, it’s been around as an otherwise normal sovereign state for at least four centuries. So far, there isn’t much to say here. Latveria does not present any legal issues the State Department doesn’t already handle every day. The whole mad-dictator-using-supernatural-powers thing is a bit unusual, but it isn’t a strictly legal problem. This also probably goes for the dozen or so fictional African nations in various Marvel continuities: they may as well be a real country for all the difference it makes.

II. “Hidden” States

But what about Wakanda, the fictional, technologically advanced African nation ruled by T’Challa, aka the Black Panther?  Wakanda is also called “The Hidden Land,” and it is largely closed off from the rest of the world.  The fact that the country has existed for thousands of years without regular contact with the outside world is… problematic because recognition is a big part of what makes a state sovereign.

If Wakanda exists inside the putative borders of at least one other country, then there is a potential for conflict, possibly even war, with those nations if Wakanda’s existence becomes known to the wider world.  Not that the other countries are likely to be able to win that war, but states don’t readily let go of territory where possible, and antagonistic neighbors are inconvenient even if they aren’t a military threat. Even the weakest of countries can make things diplomatically and logistically difficult for their neighbors (see, e.g., Somali pirates).

Alternatively, Wakanda might exist outside the borders of other countries, though that supposes some extraordinary method of concealment to avoid the “hole in the map” problem.  That’s especially hard in the era of satellite mapping.  But if Wakanda reveals itself under those circumstances, then unless some powerful countries promptly recognize Wakanda’s sovereignty, there might be a land grab by neighboring countries fighting over the new territory and its rich natural resources (e.g. vibranium).

Again, this would hold true for almost any state which has hidden its existence from the outside world. As long as they stay hidden, which will require an increasing amount of effort in today’s world of satellite surveillance, they’ll be okay. But as soon as someone learns about them, there could be all sorts of problems.

III. Underwater States

Things are different still with underwater nations. Aquaman and Namor occupy their respective universes’ instantiations of Atlantis, which somehow survived its submersion thousands of years ago. In addition to the problems facing hidden states in general, these pose the additional problems of not actually being on dry land. International waters are a rather fraught issue in international diplomacy, as they represent access to the world’s shipping lanes, an invaluable economic and military resource. Territorial waters, i.e. waters where states exert the full force of their sovereignty, extend twelve miles from the low-tide mark, while contiguous zones, where states may exert some limited authority mostly related to border protection and customs activities, extends twelve miles beyond that. the exclusive economic zone goes all the way out to two hundred miles from shore, and in that range a state may exert exclusive control over economic activities like drilling, fishing, etc., but it may not prohibit or interfere with transit or just hanging around.

But all of these definitions are based on the low-tide mark. What are the territorial waters of Atlantis, which has no low-tide mark, being completely underwater? Even if one were to simply grant the same sorts of rights as land-based nations, where do the borders of Atlantis start and stop? The edge of the city? Some distance beyond? There isn’t exactly a natural feature—on the surface anyway—where one could draw an obvious line, nor are there going to be other countries with which to define a border. Even if a ship were trying to respect the borders, without GPS or a really good navigator, it would be almost impossible to tell when you were trespassing, even by hundreds of miles.

It’s possible that other nations might not recognize that Atlantis has territorial waters at all, as it would be pretty inconvenient to do so. States are accustomed to having pretty much free reign in the Atlantic, so a huge hole in the map defined solely by law created to respect Atlantean territorial claims might not be of much interest to other states. One could always make the argument that Atlantis is free to do whatever it likes on the ocean floor provided it does not interfere with surface traffic, but even then 1) why would Atlantis agree to that, and 2) what about submarine traffic? And given that Atlantis would probably need to be willing to go to war to get what it wants, would it? Could it? Namor has certainly launched an attack on more than one occasion, but that never seems to go very well. No, it would probably be best for all involved if the undersea kingdoms kept to themselves and did not advance any territorial claims. International disputes like this one have historically been solved with armies.

IV. Conclusion

A lot of the fictional nations in comics stories don’t present any particular legal problems: redrawing territorial lines happens with some regularity even in the real world. Even since the Peace of Westphalia, one is hard-pressed to come up with a decade when national boundaries didn’t change somewhere. But adding in the possibility of countries that have been hidden for long periods of time or, even worse, exist under the surface of the ocean, makes things a lot more complicated.

22 responses to “Superheroes and International Law II: Unusual Sovereignties

  1. How would sovereign territory be defined in space, whether a nation established on Mars, say, or an orbital habitat like an O’Neill cylinder or a converted asteroid (say, Magneto’s Asteroid M)? As I understand it, UN treaty forbids Earth nations from making territorial claims on bodies in space, but what if colonists create their own nations, and what if the bodies are artificial? The UN would have little power to enforce that treaty once there’s an extensive human presence in space; after all, if they don’t like what Earth tells them to do, they can just drop asteroids on us. But let’s assume that a latter-day Peace of Westphalia defines a new set of rules for territorial claims or boundaries in space. I guess on Mars, with no oceans, you’d just define international boundaries the way land borders are defined on Earth. But what would be considered the “territorial waters” of, say, an artificial colony at the L5 point or in the Asteroid Belt? Perhaps the 12-mile/19-km limit might be adopted by tradition.

    I’ve often thought that if a whole planet or moon could be treated as a sovereign nation (say, if at some future time there were a united Earth government), a good place to define the limits of its territorial control would be its Hill sphere ( ). That’s the region in which the gravity of a body exerts more influence than the gravity of any other body; for instance, anything inside the Hill sphere of Earth’s Moon is going to be a satellite of the Moon rather than going into orbit of Earth. So effectively, any “territory” within the Moon’s Hill sphere is under its gravitational control. Thus, it makes sense that it would be under the Moon’s legal control as well. But then you run into a problem, since the Moon is within the Earth’s Hill sphere. How would you resolve the conflicting claims if Earth and the Moon were separate sovereign states?

  2. David Johnston

    Of course the failure to resolve these issues is why Namor keeps attacking the surface world. Aquaman’s Atlantis which is sometimes acknowledged by the U.N. seems to claim underwater ground surface but hasn’t made a claim to the surface of the water above them. (Mind you Aqualantis seems to be on the strangely well-let ocean floor, while Namortis appears to be on the continental shelf, off the coast of the United States.).

    I recall a roleplaying game where sufficiently powerful superhumans were defined by the United States as nations, population 1. If they lived in the United States, then their property was considered to be an embassy. While this meant that they automatically had diplomatic immunity from conventional law enforcement, I expect part of the reason for it, was to do an end run around posse comitatus if they were considered to be “hostile nations”

  3. I imagine Namor’s lack of success has more to do with his lack of imagination. A conventional attack might not be too successful but he could easily make a devastating pirate unless Atlantis was recognized as a state. Of course that’s a matter of economics and politics, not one of law.

  4. Let’s double up on the uncertainty. Gorilla City is another of those hidden African territories, and they’re good at controlling the neighborhood, but the residents are not human.

    One answer could be that the eight hundred pound gorilla can sit wherever he wants – even in the UN. Especially if he’s Grodd.

  5. I don’t see any reason why civil surface traffic should be any different than air traffic – stay in the corridor and stay in contact with ATC and you’re good. And it doesn’t take a particularly good navigator or technology much beyond what would have been available in the late 19th century to stay within a sufficiently broad (50 miles or so is more than generous) corridor.

    Actually, submarine traffic is probably more like air traffic and surface traffic more like space travel. And we have well defined legal methods for handling both.

  6. I don’t know the claims from the Marvel universe, but Wakanda could have been a known nation which was ‘hidden’ in the sense that it engaged in very little trade and outside contact, but everyone in the area knew pretty well ‘Ah yes, past that river is Wakanda, and here is Whatevercountry.’

    This is harder for Gorilla City, of course.

    • I’d agree with that interpretation of Wakandan claims to status as a “hidden” nation. The next-door neighbours – and those Euro-nations that butted into the business of said neighbours back during the “Age of Colonialism” – knew damn well all along where and what Wakanda was/is. They just didn’t make a big noise about it for various reasons over the centuries. The Fantastic Four’s arrival was what finally put Wakanda on everyone’s political radar.

  7. It’s possibly worth mentioning that most fictional Atlantean cities are domed. To me, that would appear to be an appropriate “coastal” boundary, being a physical demarcation between space claimed to be Atlantean and the ocean.

    One question that comes to mind here, though, is what about “hidden” nations that only “interface” with our world? For example, if someone sets up shop in an alternate universe accessible (so far as anyone knows) only through a fixed portal in space that happens to be in the middle of Azerbaijan, it’s entrance is wholly contained, and thus technically its borders. But somehow that seems like the wrong interpretation, doesn’t it? After all, the actual territory isn’t on anybody’s land.

    • Richard Winters

      Regardless of the cities being domed, territory is usually defined as to the extent that their government is willing to exert military presence. When more than one state exerts said presence, you either get treaties or wars. I assume US Military Bases are considered US Territory, despite being located abroad, for instance, and treaties govern this.

      If Atlantis has warriors that control a larger area (beyond 24 miles) from the demarcation of the city bubble, that would still become their territory.

      Basically… a nations’ borders are what it can enforce. If Namor wanted to enforce his command of the ocean surface in the atlantic, he probably could claim it all. Then there’d be war, just like he so enjoys except that it’d be on his territory, as the US and Europe would likely commit quite a number of subs. It would certainly make a cool story…

      • Submarines aren’t notably good at antipersonnel combat. The only really conceivable method would be to torpedo the city itself which might be a war crime depending on circumstances. Ultimately it would probably be best to settle for some treaty or other.

      • To clarify, I agree that the day-to-day territory is whatever you’re willing to defend, but I was responding to the post’s question and reasoning regarding territorial waters and contiguous zones. Those terms are legally defined (from the low tide coastline), not militarily defined. My suggestion regarding the domes was that the domes seem like an ideal boundary to consider “coastal,” not that Artie and Namor should keep their noses inside their own fishbowls.

      • “I assume US Military Bases are considered US Territory”

        Yes, no, and maybe. It varies greatly with the country hosting the bases and the US’s relations with them.

    • Presumably a hypothetical domed settlement-city would also gain the benefit of the economic zones and suchlike as surface nations do.

    • A dome to me seems roughly akin to a city wall, which, though it practically limits the size of the city (or city-state) doesn’t have any bearing on the legal question of its territory.

  8. What of the Savage Land in Antarctica? Or, similarly, the Blue Zone on the moon, where the Inhumans hang out? Both of these areas exist in territory that is defined by international law, and yet function, more or less, as sovereign states. I suppose in the Multiverse the relevant treaties may differ from the ones we are familiar with, but that’s no fun. How should they be treated under international law?

    • Is the Savage Land actually considered a sovereign state? In any case I don’t think there’s a great deal of precious resources on either and there isn’t much the international community can do to remove them short of war, so as long as the two don’t make trouble they probably can keep their lands.

      • Pat O'Neill

        The Savage Land and Wakanda appear to be the only known sources for Vibranium, an incredibly valuable resource in the Marvel Universe. Isn’t it one of the components of adamantium?

  9. William H Stoddard

    This column makes me think of a variant I came up with a few years ago, as the premise for a roleplaying campaign: A timeline where the high-end superbeings were recognized in international law as sovereign. Not as sovereign states, because they had no territory (other than their personal residences, which were defined as embassies), but as individuals with the same legal position as sovereign states. This didn’t apply to all superbeings of course, but specifically to the ones who were powerful enough to have a reasonable shot at defeating the armed forces of a substantial nation. (In the comic books, this would include Superman, Green Lantern, probably the Hulk, likely Dr. Manhattan. . . .) It made for some interesting situations, not least by way of coming up with superbeings who were powerful enough in different ways to be a major threat.

    In fact, I’d be interested in seeing a discussion of this legal premise by someone who actually knows law, rather than simply having read about it out of personal curiosity.

    • Wouldn’t defining high level superbeings as sovereign make the government subject to lawsuits about illegal deprivation of citizenship, since citizenship can only be relinquished voluntarily?

      • They’d presumably have dual citizenship. For an head of state to also be a citizen of some other country is unusual, but not forbidden, provided they didn’t actively seek the role. The relevant precedent would be inheriting royal status, which happens whether the recipient accepts it or not.

        There are a few cases, like the knights of St John, of organisations accepted as sovereign by some countries, though they don’t really govern any territory. Some super-hero teams could probably claim similar status.

      • Martin Phipps

        Ah. That could be another way to settle the issue of superheroes and taxes.

        Question: How much does the Hulk pay in taxes?
        Answer: As much as Hulk wants to pay, puny human.

  10. I hope the thread is still current.

    The current news (May 2011) about an official of an NGO picked up in NYC for assaulting (so to speak) a hotel employee once again raises the question of diplomatic immunity, and criminal super-sovereigns like Dr Doom

    While Dr Doom, as the sovereign head of state, enjoys a higher level of status, what about Latverian minions, henchmen, etc who may, at Doom’s behest, be in the United States under the guise of attending UN, IMF, UNICEF, World Bank, ICCP, or other NGOs? They breeze in thru immigration, spend an hour or so sleeping thru a meeting, then spend all night attaching rocket boosters to the foundation pillars under the Baxter Building …

    I mean, can the henchmen be charged for attempted murder? Conspiracy? Reckless endangerment? Violations of the building code?

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