When people interact for their own, and others’, benefit, often laws are required to keep everything smooth and civil. But only countries can truly enforce laws within their own borders (though arguably this isn’t always the case). Nevertheless, countries must often make agreements between each other to govern their interactions as sovereign nations, or to govern the interactions between their respective peoples. Sometimes, it gets weird or details fall through the cracks. Here are seven fun examples.
The Outer Space Treaty
The UN sponsored a treaty in 1967 declaring that outer space belongs to all of humanity, not any single nation or group of people. 102 countries have ratified it, including all of the countries that have and do visit space on occasion. Similarly, the UN sponsored a treaty in 1979 declaring the moon to be the possession of all of humanity as well. However, only 15 countries have ratified it, none of which have or do visit space. This opens up the possibility of eventual private real estate on the moon.
In 1976, as the Cold War raged on, the U.S. and the Soviet Union couldn’t find much to agree on — except migratory birds. The two nations signed a treaty protecting the birds and their habitats that migrate between them.
Sometimes, it’s the absence of a treaty that’s strange. For example, when a war concludes, it’s customary for the warring countries to sign a peace treaty. In some cases, this has led to some awkward situations. For example, Russia and Japan have yet to sign a peace treaty after World War II and still quibble about four islands that each nation claims as their own. The lack of a peace treaty between Denmark and a small group islands off the coast of England called the Isles of Scilly for 335 years resulted in history’s longest war. (Peace was finally sealed in 1986, with zero casualties.) And the tiny European nation of Andorra never negotiated peace with Germany after World War I, then declared war on Germany again in World War II, resulting in them technically fighting two world wars at once.
A series of treaties signed between the years of 1795 and 1836 with the North African nations of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Tripoli were essentially agreements for the U.S. to pay protection money. As U.S. merchant vessels sailed the sea around these countries, pirates would regularly attack them. The U.S. had no navy at the time, so they agreed to make regular payments to keep the pirates off their back. When these countries asked for more money, President Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have it, and that was when the U.S. Navy was born.
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a treaty that would allow participating nations to fly over each others’ territory for the purpose of observation. Naturally, the U.S.S.R. wouldn’t sign it as that would allow U.S. planes to fly over and observe any suspicious goings-on. However, Russia did sign it almost 40 years later, in 1992, when satellites pretty much handled the sort of surveillance specified in the treaty.
Lost in Translation
In 1840, the United Kingdom signed a treaty with hundreds of Maori (the indigenous peoples of New Zealand) chiefs concerning the right of ownership of New Zealand. The problem is, the content of the English version differs from its translation into the Maori language, which has inspired debate almost to this day. The British thought that Maori chiefs were agreeing to basically give New Zealand to them, or at least the right to govern New Zealand as a whole. But the Maoris thought it was simply a treaty allowing Brits to buy land and live in New Zealand if they so choose, but that the Maoris would still be in charge of their own affairs.
Treaty of Versailles
Many people have heard of the Treaty of Versailles, the agreement signed in Paris that ended World War I. It’s a fascinating document and its effects on history are astounding. However, one provision stands out as particularly strange. When Germany had African colonies (they were forced to give them away, and all other colonies, as part of the treaty) a German archeologist took back to Germany with him the skull of an East African chief named Mkwawa. His tribe, the Hehes, wanted it back. They somehow convinced the writers of the Treaty of Versailles to include its return to them.