By nature, the concept of law is inextricably bound up with the concept of space (territory). Law is most often defined as a system of rules enforced by a set of institutions - these institutions being either sovereign states (national and international law) or a supranational legal framework (ex the European Union law). In both cases, the application of these rules is limited to the territorial boundaries of the said institutions. It is however possible that the existence of 'floating territories' and territories oscillate between two or more sets of legal rules.
1. The Escamilla Case.[+] Floating Territories or Landmade Ships?
In the 1970s, a US citizen was killed by another US citizen on an ice island floating in the Arctic Ocean where they were both working as members of a research team. The incident took place while the ice island was floating in the Canadian Artic Sector. A US investigation team was sent to bring the offender back to the United States. The plane carrying him first landed in the state of Virginia, where the offender was charged with murder.
The issue that is raised with this case is whether the US, or Canada, or both national entities, have jurisdiction over this crime. Canada did not want to interfere with the course of justice in a case that concerned two US nationals. However, nor did it want its lack of involvement in this specific case to have any repercussions on its claim over the specific territory. The complexity of the issue consists in the fact that the territorial sovereignty claimed by Canada forms the basis of exclusive jurisdiction.
The ice island in question, called T-3, originated from ice shelves off of the Northern Coast of Ellesmere island, which is part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. As long as these ice shelves are connected to the land through glaciers, they are generally considered to be land. The question of their status as land arises when these ice shelves break into large fragments floating on the Arctic Ocean. As mentioned above, Canada considered these ice islands to be Canadian territory at the time of the incident. Therefore, even though the incident concerned two US nationals, the forcible removal of one of them from the island on the basis of the United States´ jurisdiction over its nationals, should have been considered as a violation of Canada´s sovereign rights over its territory.
In order to avoid addressing the issue of sovereignty directly, the US court preferred to apply jurisdiction by relying upon the State of the Flag Rule. According to the aforementioned rule, a coastal state cannot exercise criminal jurisdiction on board of a foreign ship passing through territorial waters. The court considered the ice island as a ship. In other words, the ice island, literally a floating space, was considered in the same manner as an object. The importance of this territory"s floatation is striking when one considers the following implication: once away from the ice island/ship, the US national would be subjected to the jurisdiction of whichever state the plane carrying him first landed. If this state applied the capital punishment for such crimes, as opposed to Canada which did not enforce the death penalty, then the territory"s floatation between legal systems could mean the difference between life and death.