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Artificial Islands and Territory in International Law

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Author: Dr. Imogen Saunders


Artificially created islands are a contemporary reality, created and used for military and nonmilitary purposes. Analysis of such islands has largely been limited to their status under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regime. Their position under general international law, however, remains unclear. In particular, the question of whether artificial islands can constitute sovereign territory remains unanswered. This Article analyzes the concept of territory in international law in the context of artificial islands, and argues that neither the doctrine of territory nor the strictures of UNCLOS prevent artificial islands from constituting territory capable of sovereign appropriation. This is further confirmed by examining state practice relating to artificial islands. The Article argues that artificial islands can be considered territory if they meet certain criteria: albeit territory not generating a territorial sea. Understanding artificial islands as capable of constituting territory allows for a more comprehensive and consistent positioning of such islands in regards to other general international law doctrines. The Article demonstrates this through the application of the doctrine of the unlawful acquisition of territory to artificial islands.


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