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Imagine the modern day world where an eccentric billionaire (plus a small group of others) has decided to declare their private island as their own country. (lets say the island is about 1 square kilometre)

There are actually real examples of people trying to do this, one such is the Republic of Minerva. In this case the Tongan government sent a military expedition to enforce their claim to the island, and I would imagine any other nation would do the same, especially if the island's laws were contrary to the laws of its mainland.

So if the island owner really wanted to defend their island from such operations, could they indefinitely defend it against operations from the mainland? What kind of preparations would they have to take?

Since it's such a small area of land, I would imagine that it would be significantly easier to defend than a normal nation, and the island owner would only have to show enough force to deter any aggressors because after all, there isn't really much value for anyone attempting to capture the island.

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Money, a whole lot of money

Buy your independence from the government. One person cannot defend an island alone as you need to eat and sleep but for an impoverished country, a massive pile of cash would buy independence. If the owning country is a rich one, this isn't likely to work.

Any military action isn't going to work. A country has too much firepower for any one person. This is America carpet bombing an ISIS controlled island

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At the end of the day, it's the risk versus return for the government. They can use court, police or military to take back the island. You might hold them off in court if you're rich enough but once the police get involved and / or military, you don't have a hope. Even owning a nuke won't help as that makes you a real threat that must be stopped.

Best bet is buy your freedom.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, I considered this as an option but I think that even if you were to buy your independence - if you started to do things that were against the laws/philosophies of the mainland they would take action to stop you regardless of how much you paid them $\endgroup$ – protango Oct 2 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ You'd be amazed what people will overlook for money..... $\endgroup$ – Thorne Oct 2 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure a nuke in high orbit is enough for them to think twice. But rich dude simply isn't enough to pull that off. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Oct 2 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ It will make them think twice but no country wants nukes floating around in private hands. Every country will want to remove that threat. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Oct 3 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot, naaah ... if you have done well enough to become Mr Rich Dude who buys his own island, you already have spread your wealth in a variety of support and jurisdictions. No rich guy ever regroup all his wealth into a single account (nor a single store of value like gold bullion or similar). $\endgroup$ – Hoki Oct 3 at 14:16
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No

While the rich fellow might be able to buy insulation (perhaps even effective immunity) from local laws, that's not sovereignty. The rich fellow is NOT the head of an independent state, does not get a vote at the UN, etc. World maps still show the island as part of the real, recognized nation. When the recognized nation enforces its laws over the island by whatever means, other nations will consider it an internal matter.

Real sovereignty, as we understand it today, traces important roots to the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Today, in order to be considered a real sovereign state:

  • Other sovereign states must recognize the rich fellow's state as a peer sovereign state.
  • The new state must be capable of enforcing its sovereignty over it's territory.
  • The new state must be capable of enforcing its borders among its neighboring states.

Since the island is currently part of an existing state (and owned by Rich Fellow under laws of that state), few other real states will be willing to recognize the new state until Rich Fellow and the existing state reach a ratified international treaty (not a contract, not a one-state law, not a declaration) acknowledging independence of the new state, defining the new international border, etc.

Example: The Declaration of Independence (1776) created the United States only to themselves. The Treaty Of Paris (1783) established the United States as a sovereign nation to other states (except American allies like France and Spain, of course). The treaty included acknowledgement of the loss of territories by Great Britain, and agreement on the new boundaries. In order to achieve that recognition as a sovereign state, the USA had to fight a brutal war. After the war, property ownership was governed by the laws of the United States instead of the laws of Great Britain.

Without recognition by peer states, the island is merely the rebellious home of a rich outlaw or brigand...or nutter.

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Could a small private island protect its sovereignty?

Yes, the only trick is to have powerful armed or monied (preferably both) friends to back you up. There are many small nations today who only retain sovereignty because they have a vote in international bodies.

Nauru for instance is 12 miles around, Niue 13 I think. Neither have anything worth taking any more, but are protected because their sovereignty and vote is sought after by much larger countries.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect they are "protected" just because they have nothing anyone else wants. Even large and powerful countries that have assets other people want can find themselves attacked. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Oct 2 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG no their sovereign status is extremely valuable, billions in aid money is spent in the Pacific alone every year. Large countries and International banks compete over who gets to give them aid. They have a vote in international bodies on the strength of it. Getting the politicians of a country with 2000 people to vote for your agenda is a lot cheaper than one which has a demographic of millions, yet the vote is just as powerful. In the Pacific there are actual treaties that larger countries will send their armies in to support the govt against their own people if the people revolted. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Oct 3 at 1:15
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Your billionaire can get himself an island, but not through military means. He can pick a poor nation, and an isolated useless island. He can bribe the rulers, and make a story about creating jobs in tourism industry. Then he can build his own billionaire playground, "with blackjack and hookers" (and drugs too).

He could also pick an island populated by some ethnic minority, and bankroll/lobby their bid for independence from the repressive mainland (kinda like Kosovo independence). If mainland is really not repressive, he could covertly sponsor a nationalist movement there.

But if he tries to "develop dangerous/experimental technology which would normally be outlawed", or start assembling a actual military force, he will get the attention of the world's powers, and they will not care about sovereignty of either the island or the nation that it previously belonged to. US has bombed terrorist camps in several different established independent nations, and the only consequences were a few scattered squeaks of powerless outrage.

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Convince major world powers to set you up to their benefit.

The clear moral is that the British have been past masters in this sort of area for centuries - enlisting their support seems likely to be useful. What could go wrong?


Singapore was established by the British as a counter to the current Malayan Sultan.

They took a relatively insignificant fishing village & trading post (in a superb location) and established a pretender to the Malayan rulers as ruler of their new kingdom*. It went from there.

Singapore is militarily indefensible in modern terms (and the UK got it badly wrong in WW2) but is as safe as anywhere else nowadays.

NOBODY will take over Singapore any time soon.


An aside:

*The full story is extremely complex - as is often the case when "Perfidious Albion" interferes in world affairs. Different modern views exist, any of which may be seen as 'revisionist" depending on what you take the 'true' story to be. Even the titles and roles may confuse, Sultans and Sultanates there were but also terms and concepts such as "underking Yamtuan Muda Raja Ja'afar" and "Sultan Hussein Mua'zzam Shah ibni Mahmud Shah Alam" - whether being two two Sha's trumps a Sultan is moot.

The clear moral is that the British have been past masters in this sort of area for centuries - enlisting their support seems likely to be useful. What could go wrong?


Hussein Shah of Johor portrays Hussein as a shoe-in.
Whereas The little red blog sees him as the legitimate hero.

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No

There are many issues with trying to defend a small island from a determined attacker.

Supplies can easily be cut off by even a small patrol boat, leaving the island entirely isolated.

The small size gives no defensive depth whatsover, and very little hiding space. Satellite surveillance will give an attacker a very good picture while the defenders have no idea at all when and where the assault will happen. This will tire out a small group very quickly trying to keep constant watch

To defend against helicopters, ships or aircraft, you need heavy weaponry. Guided missiles are not cheap, and usually not freely available, and if you buy them from some rouge state, they are more likely to be the reason for an intervention than an effective form of defense.

Even if you do have them, they require maintenance, and trained operators, increasing the number of people that need to be on the island, and the amount of supplies you need.

I do think the fundamental premise is flawed of deterring agressors. Any show of force is likely to be seen as a challenge to the state they want to declare independence on, and bring down the military to put an end to the insanity as quickly as possible.

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My old answer to a different question answers this exactly.

To summarize:

  1. Aggression against it would create an incident with another major government as well, as any claim of territory would apply to both. Each would rather leave the status quo then have the other claim it officially.
  2. Big corporations actively do not want a legal precedent to be set that rejects their sovereignty. Lawyers have tied it up into knots.
  3. It does get some kind of recognition from a major NGO.
  4. The billionaire is on friendly terms with the countries involved. They do significant business with him. Perhaps something about some such business works well because they can avoid certain laws or regulations, so imposing their official claim would lose that resource.
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Bribes and Secrecy

This is an answer based on The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell. In the book, the protagonist is stranded on what appears to be an abandoned island, but meets the owner of the island, Zaroff, who challenges him to become the most dangerous game. If the protagonist can stay alive for three days, Zaroff would let him go free. Zaroff then proceeds to try to hunt him down for the rest of the book.

Zaroff, in the novel, is a retired army veteran looking for fun in hunting down humans. In the book, he has already made countless victims of the previously shipwrecked people.

How was Zaroff able to maintain his hunts in relative secrecy from the rest of the world, despite them being against the laws of almost any country? He lives on an abandoned island, and most importantly, none of the hunted had ever survived.

Based on this approach, perhaps the protagonists of your book can keep their island’s sovereignty by adopting a secretive approach. On the surface, they can obtain the rights to the island and become a separate country, but maintaining the non-intrusive laws.

But in reality, they can hold their conflicting laws in the shadows. Just as in The Most Dangerous Game, they can silence any dissenters, or people who find out about their dark side.

Obviously, this act of silencing can be done in more ways than in the book; bribes, blackmail, imprisonment, and burying. The bribes, blackmail, and imprisonment would make the book more interesting, as it leaves weak points for resistance to occur. Burying would be somewhat more problematic, as it would be difficult to 'cover up' (pardon the pun).

If anything happens, however, and news starts to leak, using their finances, the group could also bribe medias and small governments to keep up the veil. Considering that, as you have said, the island itself does not hold much value in capturing, there would be more benefits to be had for any corrupt officials to receive bribes instead.

TL;DR, by maintaining secrecy (forcefully, if need be), and suppressing any leaks through their considerable finances, the group could be successful in implementing shadow policies on their island. The relative seclusion and suppression of leaks would preemptively prevent any possible attacks on the island, rather than trying to stop one.

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The Principality of Sealand managed to make it work.

It was claimed while in international waters.

The extend of UK territorial waters was extended to include Sealand.

But it still exists as an "independent" (if not recognized by any other country) entity.

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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't cover military forces coming in to take it back by force. Sealand couldn't keep out a herd of determined sheep wearing life jackets $\endgroup$ – Thorne Oct 2 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Thorne Always the case. You need to make it not worth it or people not to want to do it. That's the same for any country with larger more powerful neighbours. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 2 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Thorne Given that it's a raised platform with no actual shoreline, I'd say they're pretty safe from sheep - no matter how determined, I doubt they've learned to climb ladders. A handful of navy seals on the other hand might pose a problem... $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Oct 2 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ @thorne Not so, Sealand was invaded and recaptured. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Sealand "They stormed the platform with speedboats, Jet Skis and helicopters, and took Bates's son Michael hostage. Michael was able to retake Sealand and capture Achenbach and the mercenaries using weapons stashed on the platform." $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Oct 2 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ "Sealand" only existed because no government particularly gave a shit about a bunch of loonies on some rusting old platforms. Had there been an issue like, say, petroleum rights or some kind of national defense factor, Sealand would have lost whatever scrap of independence it claimed before you could finish uttering the phrase "Royal Marines". $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Oct 2 at 20:52
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Can I posit Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China? Okay, not that small an island at some 36,000 km2, but because of its wealth and the services it offers it has some big influential 'friends' who are prepared to back it's continuing independence from the People's Republic of China - mainland China. If Taiwan didn't have huge economic wealth and offer stuff that among other places the USA really wants, the mainland Chinese government would have rolled over it long ago.

(Okay, one of the things that Taiwan has that the USA used to appreciate and may still do is being a US-friendly non-communist country very close to a large communist one... as the UK used to be described, it's an unsinkable aircraft carrier)

It's hard to imagine that any island considerably smaller could command enough global economic might to get support from bigger countries in it's retaining independence. After all, the putative multi-billionaire who declares its independence actually has the majority of his wealth elsewhere in the world - so the island's independence would have very little economic value.

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Sure, if they're prepared to fight back.

Your billionaire just has to be prepared to give a lot of money to some very bad people to retaliate against their enemies.

At some point, the population is going to get tired of getting suicide-bombed all the time over some stupid rock in the middle of the ocean.

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    $\begingroup$ Northern Ireland tried that approach. ETA/Basques in Spain tried that. Chechens in Russia tried that. None of them has independence. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 2 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ ...but Eritrea and Macedonia and South Sudan do have independence from that approach. $\endgroup$ – user535733 2 days ago
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The (other) answers seem to leave out the possibility of an "unthinkable" defense.

If the gazillionaire island owner convinces the leader of a large neighboring country he controls a weapon of mass destruction near (enough) to their capital, he can probably get them to agree to a treaty in which they agree to honor, and protect with their military, his claim to sovereignty.

This could be seen as a variant on the "bribery" defense suggested by others, though I think they'll agree it's a significant enough departure.

A variant on this would be to convince them you're crazy enough to deploy such a weapon on the island, which would render a large zone of the attacker's country uninhabitable, and kill lots of people already living there, if you were attacked. This is a variation on the "make it more expensive than it's worth" strategy already employed successfully by several tiny nations on Earth today.

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    $\begingroup$ Saddam Hussein of Iraq had tried to convince its neighboring countries that he has WMD and is ready to use them. In 2003, US became convinced, and look how well it turned out for Iraq and Hussein. :) $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 2 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Same comment as Bald Bear above. Threatening a state to get what you want never works in the long run. They may pretend to agree to your demand at first but as long as they believe the threat is real their intelligence services will never sleep until they disprove/destroy or take back control of it. When that's done I hope you can run fast because the threatened state will have a few not so nice things to say to you ... $\endgroup$ – Hoki Oct 3 at 14:25

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