Island of Palmas (Miangas) Case
Netherlands v. United States
Permanent Court of Arbitration (1928)
Sole Arbitrator: Max Huber
2 U.N. Rep. Int'l Arbitral Awards 829

By an agreement between the Netherlands and the U.S. (Jan. 23rd 1925) it
was agreed that: "The sole duty of the Arbitrator shall be to determine whether the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) in its entirety forms a part of territory belonging to the United States of America or of Netherlands territory."
Award of the Arbitrator

The subject of the dispute is the sovereignty over the island of Palmas (or Miangas). [P]almas (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).

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.

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.

The United States, as successor to the rights of Spain over the Philippines, bases its title in the first place on discovery.  The existence of sovereignty thus acquired is, in the American view, confirmed not merely by the most reliable cartographers and authors, but also by treaty, in particular by the Treaty of Munster, of 1648, to which Spain and the Netherlands are themselves Contracting Parties.  As, according to the same argument, nothing has occurred of a nature, in international law, to cause the acquired title to disappear, this latter title was intact at the moment when, by the Treaty of December 10th, 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States.  In these circumstances, it is, in the American view, unnecessary to establish facts showing the actual display of sovereignty precisely over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas).  The United States Government finally maintains that Palmas (or Miangas) forms a geographical part of the Philippine group and in virtue of the principle of contiguity belongs to the Power having the sovereignty over the Philippines.

According to the Netherlands Government, on the other hand, the fact of discovery by Spain is not proved, nor yet any other form of acquisition, and even if Spain had at any moment had a title, such title had been lost.  The principle of contiguity is contested.

The Netherlands Government's main argument endeavors to show that the Netherlands, represented for this purpose in the first period of colonization by the East India Company, have possessed and exercised rights of sovereignty from 1677, or probably from a date prior even to 1648, to the present day.  This sovereignty arose out of conventions entered into with native princes of the Island of Sangi (the main island of Talautse (Sangi) Isles), establishing the suzerainty of the Netherlands over the territories of these princes, including Palmas (or Miangas).  The state of affairs thus set up is claimed to be validated by international treaties.

The facts alleged in support of the Netherlands arguments are, in the United States Government's view, not proved, and even if they were proved, they would not create a title of sovereignty, or would not concern the Island of Palmas.

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

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 organization 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.

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.

Titles of acquisition of territorial sovereignty in present-day international law are either based on an act of effective apprehension, such as occupation or conquest, or, like cession, presuppose the ceding and the cessionary Powers or at least one of them, have the faculty of effectively disposing of the ceded territory....  It seems therefore natural that an element which is essential for the constitution of sovereignty should not be lacking in its continuation.  So true is this, that practice, as well as doctrine, recognizes... that the continuous and peaceful display of territorial sovereignty (peaceful in relation to other States) is as good as a title.  The growing insistence with which international law, ever since the middle of the 18th century, has demanded that the occupation shall be effective would be inconceivable, if effectiveness were required only for the act of acquisition and not equally for the maintenance of the right.  If the effectiveness has above all been insisted on in regard to occupation, this is because the question rarely arises in connection with territories in which there is already an established order of things.

Territorial sovereignty, as has already been said, involves the exclusive right to display the activities of a State.  This right has a corollary, a duty: the obligation to protect within the territory the rights of other States, in particular their right to integrity and inviolability in peace and in war, together with the rights which each State may claim for its nationals in foreign territory.  Without manifesting its territorial sovereignty in a manner corresponding to circumstances, the State cannot fulfil this duty.  Territorial sovereignty cannot limit itself to its negative side, i.e. to excluding the activities of other States....

The principle that continuous and peaceful display of the functions of State within a given region is a constituent element of territorial sovereignty is not only based on the conditions of the formation of independent States and their boundaries (as shown by the experience of political history) ... [but also] on an international jurisprudence and doctrine widely accepted....

Manifestations of territorial sovereignty assume, it is true, different forms, according to conditions of time and place.  Although continuous in principle, sovereignty cannot be exercised in fact at every moment on every point of a territory.  The intermittence and discontinuity compatible with the maintenance of the right necessarily differ according as inhabited or uninhabited regions are involved, or regions enclosed within territories in which sovereignty is incontestably displayed or again regions accessible from, for instance, the high seas.

The title alleged by the United States of America as constituting the immediate foundation of its claim is that of cession, brought about by the Treaty of Paris, which cession transferred all rights of sovereignty which Spain may have possessed in the region indicated in Article III of the said Treaty and therefore also those concerning the Island of Palmas (or Miangas).

It is evident that Spain could not transfer more rights than she herself possessed.

Whilst there existed a divergence of views as to the extension of the cession to certain Spanish islands outside the treaty limits, it would seem that the cessionary Power never envisaged that the cession, in spite of the sweeping terms of Article III, should comprise territories on which Spain had not a valid title, though falling within the limits traced by the Treaty.

As pointed out above, the United States bases its claim, as successor of Spain, in the first place on discovery.  In this connection a distinction must be made between the discovery of the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) as such, or as a part of the Philippines, which, beyond doubt, were discovered and even occupied and colonized by the Spaniards.  This latter point, however, will be considered with the argument relating to contiguity; the problem of discovery is considered only in relation to the island itself which forms the subject of the dispute.

The documents supplied to the Arbitrator with regard to the discovery of the island in question consist in the first place of a communication made by the Spanish Government to the United States Government as to researches in the archives concerning expeditions and discoveries in the Moluccas, the "Talaos" Islands, the Palos Islands and the Marianes.

The above mentioned communication of the Spanish Government does not give any details as to the date of the expedition, the navigators or the circumstances in which the observations were made; it is not supported by extracts from the original reports on which it is based, nor accompanied by reproductions of the maps therein mentioned.

In any case for the purpose of the present affair it may be admitted that the original title derived from discovery belonged to Spain....

The fact that the island was originally called, not, as customarily, by a native name, but by a name borrowed from a European language, and referring to the vegetation, serves perhaps to show that no landing was made or that the island was uninhabited at the time of discovery.  Indeed, the reports on record which concern the discovery of the Island of Palmas state only that an island was "seen", which island, according to the geographical data, is probably identical with that in dispute.  No mention is made of landing or of contact with the natives.  And in any case no signs of taking possession or of administration by Spain have been shown or even alleged to exist until the very recent date to which the reports of Captain Malone and M. Alvarez, of 1919, contained in the United States Memorandum, relate.

It is admitted by both sides that international law underwent profound modifications between the end of the Middle-Ages and the end of the 19th century, as regards the rights of discovery and acquisition of uninhabited regions or regions inhabited by savages or semicivilized peoples.  Both Parties are also agreed that a juridical fact must be appreciated in the light of the law contemporary with it, and not of the law in force at the time when a dispute in regard to it rises or falls to be settled.  The effect of discovery by Spain is therefore to be determined by the rules of international law in force in the first half of the 16th century - or (to take the earliest date) in the first quarter of it, i.e., at the time when the Portuguese or Spaniards made their appearance in the Sea of Celebes.

If the view most favorable to the American arguments is adopted - with every reservation as to the soundness of such view - that is to say, if we consider as positive law at the period in question the rule that discovery as such, i.e. the mere fact of seeing land, without any act, even symbolical, of taking possession, involved ipso jure territorial sovereignty and not merely an "inchoate title", a jus ad rem, to be completed eventually by an actual and durable taking of possession within a reasonable time, the question arises whether sovereignty yet existed at the critical date, i.e. the moment of conclusion and coming into force of the Treaty of Paris.

As regards the question which of different legal systems prevailing at successive periods is to be applied in a particular case (the so-called intertemporal law), a distinction must be made between the creation of rights and the existence of rights.  The same principle which subjects the act creative of a right to the law in force at the time the right arises, demands that the existence of the right, in other words its continued manifestation, shall follow the conditions required by the evolution of law.  International law in the 19th century, having regard to the fact that most parts of the globe were under the sovereignty of states members of the community of nations, and that territories without a master had become relatively few, took account of a tendency already existing and especially developed since the middle of the 18th century, and laid down the principle that occupation, to constitute a claim to territorial sovereignty, must be effective, that is, offer certain guarantees to other States and their nationals.  It seems therefore incompatible with this rule of positive law that there should be regions which are neither under the effective sovereignty of a State, nor without a master, but which are reserved for the exclusive influence of one State, in virtue solely of a title of acquisition which is no longer recognized by existing law, even if such a title ever conferred territorial sovereignty.  For these reasons, discovery alone, without any subsequent act, cannot at the present time suffice to prove sovereignty over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas); and in so far as there is no sovereignty, the question of an abandonment properly speaking of sovereignty by one State in order that the sovereignty of another may take its place does not arise.

If on the other hand the view is adopted that discovery does not create a definitive title of sovereignty, but only an "inchoate" title, such a title exists, it is true, without external manifestation.  However, according to the view that has prevailed at any rate since the 19th century, an inchoate title of discovery must be completed within a reasonable period by the effective occupation of the region claimed to be discovered.  This principle must be applied in the present case, for the reasons given above in regard to the rules determining which of successive legal systems is to be applied (the so-called intertemporal law).  Now, no act of occupation nor, except as to a recent period, any exercise of sovereignty at Palmas by Spain has been alleged.  But even admitting that the Spanish title still existed as inchoate in 1898 and must be considered as included in the cession under Article III of the Treaty of Paris, an inchoate title could not prevail over the continuous and peaceful display of authority by another State; for such display may prevail even over a prior, definitive title put forward by another State.  This point will be considered, when the Netherlands argument has been examined and the allegations of either Party as to the display of their authority can be compared.

As it is not proved that Spain, at the beginning of 1648 or in June 1714, was in possession of the Island of Palmas (or Miangas), there is no proof that Spain acquired by the Treaty of Munster or the Treaty of Utrecht a title to sovereignty over the island which, in accordance with the said Treaties, and as long as they hold good, could have been modified by the Netherlands only in agreement with Spain.

It is, therefore, unnecessary to consider whether subsequently Spain by any express or conclusive action, abandoned the right, which the said Treaties may have conferred upon her in regard to Palmas (or Miangas).  Moreover even if she had acquired a title she never intended to abandon, it would remain to be seen whether continuous and peaceful display of sovereignty by any other Power at a later period might not have superseded even conventional rights.

It appears further to be evident that Treaties concluded by Spain with third Powers recognizing her sovereignty over the "Philippines" could not be binding upon the Netherlands and as such Treaties do not mention the island in dispute, they are not available even as indirect evidence.

We thus come back to the question whether, failing any Treaty which, as between the States concerned, decides unequivocally what is the situation as regards the island, the existence of territorial sovereignty is established with sufficient soundness by other facts.

Although the United States Government does not take up the position that Spanish sovereignty must be recognized because it was actually exercised, the American Counter- Case none the less states that "there is at least some evidence of Spanish activities in the Island".  In these circumstances it is necessary to consider whether and to what extent the territorial sovereignty of Spain was manifested in or in regard to the Island of Palmas (or Miangas).

Apart from the facts already referred to concerning the period of discovery,...the documents laid before the Arbitration contain no trace of Spanish activities of any kind specifically on the Island of Palmas.

Neither is there any official document mentioning the Island of Palmas as belonging to an administrative or judicial district of the former Spanish government in the Philippines.

In the last place there remains to be considered title arising out of contiguity.  Although States have in certain circumstances maintained that islands relatively close to their shores belonged to them in virtue of their geographical situation, it is impossible to show the existence of a rule of positive international law to the effect that islands situated outside territorial waters should belong to a State from the mere fact that its territory forms the terra firma (nearest continent or island of considerable size).

Nor is this principle of contiguity admissible as a legal method of deciding questions of territorial sovereignty; for it is wholly lacking in precision and would in its application lead to arbitrary results.  This would be especially true in a case such as that of the island in question, which is not relatively close to one single continent, but forms part of a large archipelago in which strict delimitations between the different parts are not naturally obvious.

There lies, however, at the root of the idea of contiguity one point which must be considered also in regard to the Island of Palmas (or Miangas).  It has been explained above that in the exercise of territorial sovereignty there are necessarily gaps, intermittence in time and discontinuity in space.  This phenomenon wiII be particularly noticeable in the case of colonial territories, partly uninhabited or as yet partly unsubdued.  The fact that a State cannot prove display of sovereignty as regards such a portion of territory cannot forthwith be interpreted as showing that sovereignty is inexistent.  Each case must be appreciated in accordance with the particular circumstances.

As regards the territory forming the subject of the present dispute, it must be remembered that is a somewhat isolated island, and therefore a territory clearly delimited and individualized.  It is moreover an island permanently inhabited, occupied by a population sufficiently numerous for it to be impossible that acts of administration could be lacking for very long periods.  The memoranda of both Parties assert that there is communication by boat and even with native craft between the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) and neighboring regions.  The inability in such a case to indicate any acts of public administration makes it difficult to imagine the actual display of sovereignty, even if the sovereignty be regarded as confined within such narrow limits as would be supposed for a small island inhabited exclusively by natives.

The Netherlands' arguments contend that the East India Company established Dutch sovereignty over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) as early as the 17th century, by means of conventions with the princes of Tabukan (Taboekan) and Taruna (Taroena), two native chieftains of the Island of Sangi (Groot Sangihe), the principal Island of the Talautse Isles (Sangi Islands), and that sovereignty has been displayed during the past two centuries.

Even the oldest contract, dated 1677, contains clauses binding the vassal of the East India Company to refuse to admit the nationals of other States, in particular Spain, into his territories, and to tolerate no religion other than protestantism, reformed according to the doctrine of the Synod of Dordrecht.  Similar provisions are to be found in the other contracts of the 17th and 18th centuries.  If both Spain and the Netherlands had in reality displayed their sovereignty over Palmas (or Miangas), it would seem that, during so long a period, collisions between the two Powers must almost inevitably have occurred.

The questions to be solved in the present case are the following:

Was the island of Palmas (or Miangas) in 1898 a part of the territory under Netherlands' sovereignty?

Did this sovereignty actually exist in 1898 in regard to Palmas (or Miangas) and are the facts proved which were alleged on this subject?

If the claim to sovereignty is based on the continuous and peaceful display of State authority, the fact of such display must be shown precisely in relation to the disputed territory.  It is not necessary that there should be a special administration established in this territory; but it cannot suffice for the territory to be attached to another by a legal relation which is not recognized in international law as valid against a State contesting this claim to sovereignty; what is essential in such a case is the continuous and peaceful display of actual power in the contested region.

The acts of the East India view of occupying or colonizing the regions at issue in the present affair must, in international law, be entirely assimilated to acts of the Netherlands State itself.

[The] documentary evidence, taken together with the fact that no island called Miangas or bearing a similar name other than Palmas (or Miangas) seems to exist north of the Talautse (Sangi) and Talauer Isles, leads to the conclusion that the island Palmas (or Miangas) was in the early part of the 18th century considered by the Dutch East India Company as a part of their vassal State of Tabukan.  This is the more probable for the reason that in later times, notably in an official report of 1825 the "far distant island Melangis" is mentioned again as belonging to Tabukan.

There is a considerable gap in the documentary evidence laid before the Tribunal by the Netherlands Government, as far as concerns not the vassal State of Tabukan in general, but Palmas (or Miangas) in particular.  There is however no reason to suppose, when the Resident van Delden, in a report of 1825, mentioned the island "Melangis" as belonging to Tabukan, that these relations has not existed between 1726 and 1825.

It would however seem that before 1895 the direct relations between the island and the colonial administration were very loose.  The documents relating to the time before 1895 are indeed scanty, but they are not entirely lacking.  The most important fact is however the existence of documentary evidence as to the taxation of the people of Miangas by the Dutch authorities.  Whilst in earlier times the tribute was paid in mats, rice and other objects, it was, in conformity with the contract with Taruna of 1885, replaced by a capitation, to be paid in money (one florin for each native man above 18 years).  A table has been produced by the Netherlands Government which contains for all the dependencies of the Sangi States situated in the Talauer Islands the number of taxpayers and the amount to be paid.  There "Menagasa" ranks as a part of the "Djoegoeschap" (Presidency) of the Nanusa under the dependencies of Taruna, with 88 "Hassiplichtigen" (taxpayers), paying each Fl. 1

The conclusions to be derived from the above examination of the arguments of the Parties are the following:

The claim of the United States to sovereignty over the Island of Palmas (or Miangas) is derived from Spain by way of cession under the Treaty of Paris.  The latter Treaty, though it comprises the island in dispute within the limits of cession, and in spite of the absence of any reserves or protest by the Netherlands as to these limits, has not created in favour of the United States any title of sovereignty such as was not already vested in Spain.  The essential point is therefore to decide whether Spain had sovereignty over Palmas (or Miangas) at the time of the coming into force of the Treaty of Paris.

The United States base their claim on the titles of discovery, of recognition by treaty and of contiguity, i.e. titles relating to acts or circumstances leading to the acquisition of sovereignty; they have however not established the fact that sovereignty so acquired was effectively displayed at any time.

The Netherlands on the contrary found their claim to sovereignty essentially on the title of peaceful and continuous display of State authority over the island.  Since this title would in international law prevail over a title of acquisition of sovereignty not followed by actual display of State authority, it is necessary to ascertain in the first place, whether the contention of the Netherlands is sufficiently established by evidence, and if so, for what period of time.

The acts of indirect or direct display of Netherlands sovereignty at Palmas (or Miangas), especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries are not numerous, and there are considerable gaps in the evidence of continuous display.  But apart from the consideration that the manifestations of sovereignty over a small and distant island, inhabited only by natives, cannot be expected to be frequent, it is not necessary that the display of sovereignty should go back to a very far distant period.  It may suffice that such display existed in 1898, and had already existed as continuous and peaceful before that date long enough to enable any Power who might have considered herself as possessing sovereignty over the island, or having a claim to sovereignty, to have, a cording to local conditions, a reasonable possibility for ascertaining the existence of a state of things contrary to her real or alleged rights.

It is not necessary that the display of sovereignty should be established as having begun at a precise epoch; it suffices that it had existed at the critical period preceding the year 1898.  It is quite natural that the establishment of sovereignty may be the outcome of a slow evolution, of a progressive intensification of State control.  This is particularly the case, if sovereignty is acquired by the establishment of the suzerainty of a colonial Power over a native State, and in regard to outlying possessions of such a vassal State.

Now the evidence relating to the period after the middle of the 19th century makes it clear that the Netherlands Indian Government considered the island distinctly as a part of its possessions and that, in the years immediately preceding 1898, an intensification of display of sovereignty took place.

Since the moment when the Spaniards, in withdrawing from the Moluccas in 1666, made express reservations as to the maintenance of their sovereign rights, up to the contestation made by the United States in 1906, no contestation or other action whatever or protest against the exercise of territorial rights by the Netherlands over the Talautse (Sangi) Isles and their dependencies (Miangas included) has been recorded.  The peaceful character of the display of Netherlands sovereignty for the entire period to which the evidence concerning acts of display relates (1700-1906) must be admitted.

As to the conditions of acquisition of sovereignty by way of continuous and peaceful display of State authority (so-called prescription), some of which have been discussed in the United States Counter-Memorandum, the following must be said:

The display has been open and public, that is to say that it was in conformity with usages as to exercise of sovereignty over colonial States.

There can further be no doubt that the Netherlands exercised the State authority over the Sangi States as sovereign in their own right, not under a derived or precarious title.

The conditions of acquisition of sovereignty by the Netherlands are therefore to be considered as fulfilled.  It remains now to be seen whether the United States as successors of Spain are in a position to bring forward an equivalent or stronger title.  This is to be answered in the negative.

The title of discovery... would... exist only as an inchoate title, as a claim to establish sovereignty by effective occupation.  An inchoate title however cannot prevail over a definite title founded on continuous and peaceful display of sovereignty.

The title of contiguity, understood as a basis of territorial sovereignty, has no foundation in international law.

The Netherlands title of sovereignty, acquired by continuous and peaceful display of State authority during a long period of time going probably back beyond the year 1700, therefore holds good.

For these reasons the Arbitrator,... decides that: The Island of Palmas (or Miangas) forms in its entirety a part of Netherlands territory.