Nauru’s Prohibition on Transfers of Land to Non-Citizens

Earlier, I used the “cybernation of Wirtland” as a thought experiment for discussing how international law might treat the acquisition of territory for the deliberate purpose of obtaining sovereignty. Wirtland has ‘proposed’ to acquire territory, and therefore eventually achieve statehood, by entering into a deal with Nauru by which Wirtland would obtain sovereignty over Nauru’s strip minded lands.

Although Nauru would be entirely free to enter into such a deal, as the principle of permanent sovereignty requires that every State recognize “the inalienable right of all States freely to dispose of their natural wealth and resources in accordance with their national interests,” (GA Resolution 1803 (XVII), preambular para.5), there are many reasons to seriously doubt another entity could achieve statehood by acquiring them.

It turns out I was looking at the issue far too abstractly. While I still think it is an interesting question as to whether or not a country can, in a financial transaction, withdraw claims of sovereignty over a portion of its territory and grant them towards the establishment of an entirely new State with no prior existence, using Nauru as the hypothetical example is a nonstarter. Nauru is, in itself, an interesting test case for many of our notions of sovereignty, but it cannot be the basis of a new nation’s claim to territory — because Nauruan law prohibits the alienation of real property to non-Nauruan citizens.

I knew from the Case Concerning Certain Phosphate Lands in Nauru that phosphate mining in Nauru took place under a series of complex mandates, trusteeships, and leases, and I got curious about who exactly would have been said to be “sovereign” over Nauruan territory prior to Nauru’s independence in 1968.

While looking up stuff about that, though, I was surprise to see that under Nauruan law today, it is a criminal offense to sell land to a non-Nauruan citizen, and any such attempt to do so will result in a void transaction. The Lands Act 1976 of Nauru provides that:

(1) Transfer inter vivos of the freehold of any land in Nauru to any person other than a Nauruan persons prohibited, and any such transfer or purported transfer, or any agreement to execute any such transfer, shall be absolutely void and of no effect.

(2) Any person who transfers, or agrees attempts or purports to transfer, the freehold of any land in Nauru to any person other than a Nauruan person is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for six months.

So, looks like Wirtland needs to buy land from someone else.

-Susan