Laws are constituted to keep peace and order and define what a community of people deems as important to their way of living. For others, laws curtail freedom and individuality. Are there still places on earth not governed by laws? Here are a few places on earth where formal laws as we know them largely do not exist:

1. Antartica

The first place is Antarctica. A treaty in 1959 ensured that the place is free for all. But since it is no more than a large chunk of ice and has little to offer in terms of natural resources, its barely habitable. The whole continent is donated to science for scientists to study and experiment on.

No one nation legally owns or governs Antartica so there’s no set centralized lawmaking body on the continent. Instead, in 1952, The Antarctic Treaty was signed in by a group of countries who had scientists in and around Antarctica and were already conducting research. It was initially agreed to by original signatories, seven countries with claims to territory in Antartica. These original signatories included: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Since 1961, when The Antarctic Treaty was put into affect, many other world nations have adopted it.

There are four major international agreements that are in force in Antartica including:

  • The Antarctic Treaty of 1959
  • The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals of 1972
  • The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources of 1980
  • Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty in 1991

From a legal standpoint, these agreements are only legally binding on those nations or countries who sign them. For those who haven’t signed the treaties, there are effectively no laws in Antartica.

2. International Waters

International Waters is defined as beyond 12 nautical miles of any body of water surrounding a nation and not governed by any sovereign laws. But hold your skipper outfit though. Although this is often regarded as lawless waters, the Convention on the High Seas takes over. This ensures piracy is illegal as well as murder. Anyone caught doing an illegal act will be tried under Admiralty Law. Throughout the 20th century,  many attempts  were made to develop an international “law of the sea.” More recently, these talks culminated in the third and most-recent United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (which took place in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1982), which was largely successful, resulting in more than 160 countries signing on to an agreement by 2017. Several countries, including the United States and others with significant ocean-facing and sea-facing coastlines (such as Colombia, Venezuela, and Turkey) have yet to sign the agreement. This agreement, however, is limited in scope and effect, as it only deals with the areas 12 miles or less from the shore of a Country. With respect to crimes committed beyond the 12 mile zones, in general, the laws of the country owning the vessel or structure upon which the crime has been committed will most often control. This may seem pretty straightforward, but vessels in the sea are often on the move, which creates jurisdictional headaches for investigators and government officials.

3. Western Territory of Afghanistan

Western Territory of Afghanistan aka “Ungoverned Afghanistan” is another area with areas of lawlessness. In this corner of the globe, tribal laws are imposed by various indigenous tribes of the region – leaving some areas ungoverned entirely. It is unclaimed by the state and therefore governed by a patchwork of local tribal leaders. This style of governance has been referred to as a “Rebel Rule of Law.” Over time, the Taliban have gradually uprooted and replaced customary and state systems of conflict resolution and justice with their own courts in the areas they influence and control. In many areas of Western Afghanistan, this is the only justice system the population has access to – as the presence of the national government is minimal in remote areas of the Country. To understand why Taliban courts have become so prevalent, one must begin with the struggle to develop a functional state justice system in Afghanistan after 2001 and the lawlessness that ensued in many of these regions. Had it not been for this widespread failure to ensure access to justice for Afghans by the National Government, sharia courts arguably would not have been such a powerful asset for the Taliban. However, the complete chaos that a lack of laws cause in this region has largely increased the desire and need for more formal laws – and local leaders have gladly obliged.

4. Bir Tawil, Africa

Bir Tawil is a piece of land that fills a curious space in Africa with respect to the law. Purchased in 2014 by an American dad in an effort to make his daughter a princess, this largely forgotten corner of the world had remained unclaimed by neighboring Egypt or Sudan. The American dad purchased the land by starting a global crowdfunding appeal aimed at securing $250,000 in an effort at getting his new “state” up and running.

Bir Tawil’s unusual status – wedged between the borders of two countries and yet claimed by neither – is a byproduct of colonial conquests in north-east Africa, during an era of British control over Egypt and Egyptian influence on Sudan.

In 1899, the British government signed an agreement splitting Sudan and Egypt along a straight line at the 22nd parallel. However, three years later – acknowledging that  a mountain known as Bartazungu was populated by a nomadic Ababda tribe with strong historical ties to Egypt – the British signed another agreement giving a small piece of land from Sudan to Egypt. The land became a central point of dispute when Sudan achieved independence in 1956, when a dispute over the Hala’ib region where Bir Tawil is located intensified. The territorial claims stem from competing documents of Egypt and Sudan which contradict one another regarding the ownership of this piece of land. Despite these competing territorial claims, in practice, Bir Tawil is widely believed to have the legal status of terra nullius – “nobody’s land” – and there is nothing else quite like it on the planet. 

5. Slab City, California

Slab City is not far from civilization. It is just a hundred miles east of San Diego. It is a free alternative living community that was a World War 2 base, Marine Barracks Camp. The name Slab City was coined from the concrete slabs that were the remains of the military base after it was abandoned. One reason for living in the community is poverty. But for some, the feeling of freedom from rules and ordinances is a good reason to stay and take up permanent residence. 

While the lack of government presence is a draw for many, there are reports of vigilante style justice in the form of shootouts or arson. While Slab City is often referred to as “The Last Free Place in America,” the name may be more hyperbolic than true. Recently, the State of California has announced plans to exert control and ownership of Slab City by seeking to sell it – potentially to energy companies. Moreover, while they claim complete independence, the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department and the Niland Fire Department often provide services to Slab City even though they receive no tax money. 

For example, in 2016, a Slab City resident named Clayton Vincent Jones murdered a woman. The police investigated the murder and were able to arrest Jones because another Slab City resident called the police before he could leave. After his arrest, he was transported to the Imperial County Jail. 

About the Authors: Sawan & Sawan is a Toledo, Ohio based law firm representing clients in the areas of Personal InjuryTruck Accidents, and Car Accidents with lawyers licensed to practice in Ohio, Michigan and Georgia.

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Dennis P. Sawan

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