Island of Las Palmas, 1928 – The concept of territorial SovereigntyIsland of Las Palmas, 1928 – The concept of territorial Sovereignty

In the words of Professor Daniel-Erasmus Khan: “Max Huber is the ‘Island of Palmas case’ and the ‘Island of Palmas case’ is Max Huber.”


‘General Observations’, Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Island of Palmas Case (or Miangas): United States of America vs. The Netherlands, Award of the Tribunal, The Hague, 4 April 1928. pp. 5-6:

The subject of the dispute is the sovereignty over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas). The Island in question is indicated with precision in the preamble to the Special Agreement, its latitude and longitude being specified. The fact that in the diplomatic correspondence prior to the conclusion of the Special Agreement, and in the documents of the arbitration proceedings, [836] the United States refer to the “Island of Palmas” and the Netherlands to the “Island of Miangas”, does not therefore concern the identity of the subject of the dispute. Such difference concerns only the question whether certain assertions made by the Netherlands Government really relate to the island described in the Special Agreement or another island or group of islands which might be designated by the name of Miangas or a similar name.

It results from the evidence produced by either side that Palmas (or Miangas) is a single, isolated island, not one of several islands clustered together. It lies about half way between Cape San Augustin (Mindanao, Philippine Islands) and the most northerly island of the Nanusa (Nanoesa) group (Netherlands East Indies).

The origin of the dispute is to be found in the visit paid to the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) on January 21st, 1906, by General LEONARD WOOD, who was then Governor of the Province of Moro. It is true that according to information contained in the Counter-Memorandum of the United States the same General WOOD had already visited the island “about the year 1903”, but as this previous visit appears to have had no results, and it seems even doubtful whether it took place, that of January 21st, 1906 is to be regarded as the first entry into contact by the American authorities with the island. The report of General WOOD to the Military Secretary, United States Army, dated January 26th, 1906, and the certificate delivered on January 21st by First Lieutenant GORDON JOHNSTON to the native interrogated by the controller of the Sangi (Sanghi) and Talauer (Talaut) Islands clearly show that the visit of January 21st relates to the island in dispute.

This visit led to the statement that the Island of Palmas (or Miangas), undoubtedly included in the “archipelago known as the Philippine Islands”, as delimited by Article III of the Treaty of Peace between the United States and Spain, dated December 10th, 1898 (hereinafter also called “Treaty of Paris”), and ceded in virtue of the said article to the United States, was considered by the Netherlands as forming part of the territory of their possessions in the East Indies. There followed a diplomatic correspondence, beginning on March 31st, 1906, and leading up to the conclusion of the Special Agreement of January 23rd, 1925.

Before beginning to consider the arguments of the Parties, we may at the outset take as established certain facts which, according to the pleadings, are not contested.

1. The Treaty of Peace of December 10th, 1898 and the Special Agreement of January 23rd, 1925, are the only international instruments laid before the Arbitrator which refer precisely, that is, by mathematical location or by express and unequivocal mention, to the island in dispute, or include it in or exclude it from a zone delimited by a geographical frontier-line. The scope of the international treaties which relate to the “Philippines” and of conventions entered into with native Princes will be considered in connection with the arguments of the Party relying on a particular act.

2. Before 1906 no dispute had arisen between the United States or Spain, on the one hand, and the Netherlands, on the other, in regard specifically to the Island of Palmas (or Miangas), on the ground that these Powers put forward conflicting claims to sovereignty over the said island. [837]

3. The two Parties claim the island in question as a territory attached for a very long period to territories relatively close at hand which are incontestably under the sovereignty of the one or the other of them.

4. It results from the terms of the Special Agreement (Article I) that the Parties adopt the view that for the purposes of the present arbitration the island in question can belong only to one or the other of them. Rights of third Powers only come into account in so far as the rights of the Parties to the dispute may be derived from them.


“In the first place the Arbitrator deems it necessary to make some general remarks on sovereignty in its relation to territory.

The Arbitrator will as far as possible keep to the terminology employed in the Special Agreement. The preamble refers to “sovereignty over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas)”, and under Article I, paragraph 2, the Arbitrator’s task is to “determine whether the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) in its entirety forms a part of Netherlands territory or of territory belonging to the United States of America”. It appears to follow that sovereignty in relation to a portion of the surface of the globe is the legal condition necessary for the inclusion of such portion in the territory of any particular State. Sovereignty in relation to territory is in the present award called “territorial sovereignty”.

Sovereignty in the relations between States signifies independence. Independence in regard to a portion of the globe is the right to exercise therein, to the exclusion of any other State, the functions of a State. The development of the national organisation of States during the last few centuries and, as a corollary, the development of international law, have established this principle of the exclusive competence of the State in regard to its own territory in such a way as to make it the point of departure in settling most questions that concern international relations. The special casts of the composite State, of collective sovereignty, etc., do not fall to be considered here and do not, for that matter, throw any doubt upon the principle which has just been enunciated. Under this reservation it may be stated that territorial sovereignty belongs always to one, or in exceptional circumstances to several States, to the exclusion of all others. The fact that the functions of a State can be performed by any State within a given zone is, on the other hand, precisely the characteristic feature of the legal situation pertaining in those parts of the globe which, like the high seas or lands without a master, cannot or do not yet form the territory of a State.

Territorial sovereignty is, in general, a situation recognised and delimited in space, either by so-called natural frontiers as recognised by international law or by outward signs of delimitation that are undisputed, or else by legal engagements entered into between interested neighbours, such as frontier conventions, or by acts of recognition of States within fixed [839] boundaries. If a dispute arises as to the sovereignty over a portion of territory, it is customary to examine which of the States claiming sovereignty possesses a title – cession, conquest, occupation, etc. – superior to that which the other State might possibly bring forward against it. However, if the contestation is based on the fact that the other Party has actually displayed sovereignty, it cannot be sufficient to establish the title by which territorial sovereignty was validly acquired at a certain moment; it must also be shown that the territorial sovereignty has continued to exist and did exist at the moment which for the decision of the dispute must be considered as critical. This demonstration consists in the actual display of State activities, such as belongs only to the territorial sovereign.”

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