terra nullius

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Terra nullius is a term that refers to a “territory without a master.” It is a term used in public international law to describe a space that can be inhabited but that does not belong to a state, meaning the land is not owned by anyone. In fact, when a State or an entity describes a land as a terra nullius, the land is in reality occupied – by a nation or a minority – but the term has oftentimes been used in order to legitimize state occupation and colonization. In international public law, when the definition terra nullius is given to a land, it can legally legitimize its occupation and acquisition of sovereignty by another nation, under the doctrine of discovery, which the ICJ has approved as a legal method of acquisition of territory.

[Last updated in April of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]