neutral zones

Are You a Neutral Zonian?

Cornell University wants to know if I am a resident of the Neutral Zone. Seriously. The question appeared the other day when I was filling out an on-line recommendation for a student applying to graduate school at Cornell. After inserting my name and affiliation, I came to one of the ubiquitous pull-down menus with a list of countries and territories, asking me to select my land of residence. I find such menus amusing, as many of the entries are uninhabited and essentially uninhabitable islands. Has anyone ever selected the sub-Antarctic Heard and McDonald Islands or the French Southern Territories? The occasional nod to hypercorrect nomenclature is also comical; why does Cornell want to know if I am from the Libyan Arab Jamahirya rather than just Libya? Such absurdities are common most geographical pull-down menus. But the Neutral Zone, on Cornell’s list, is something else altogether.

Finding the Neutral Zone reminded me of Star Trek — as if Cornell wants to know whether my allegiance falls elsewhere than the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, or the Romulan Star Empire. Wikipedia gives ten entries for “Neutral Zone,” three of which pertain to sports, one to control theory, one to railroads, three to Star Trek, and two to geography. Cornell did not specify which of the two geographical neutral zones I might have been from: the Saudi-Iraqi Neutral Zone or the Saudi-Kuwaiti Neutral Zone. When they appeared on mid-twentieth century maps, neither was inhabited, and both, in any event, have long since ceased to exist. The Saudi-Iraqi Neutral Zone was divided between the two countries in 1991, while the same happened to the Saudi-Kuwaiti Neutral Zone in 1970. It is thus rather unlikely that Cornell will be receiving many letters of recommendation from Neutral Zonian professors.

Cornell is by no means the only institution to make such nonsensical inquiries. Georgetown University also asks about residency in uninhabited islands, and bizarrely lists the South Ryukyu Islands, an integral part of Japan, as a separate entity, which is much like separating the Hawaiian Islands from the United States. Hotel registration menus can be equally fun. San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel gives one the choice of selecting “China,” “South China,” or “other China” — and Taiwan as well.

The mother of all geographical pull-down menus may well be that maintained by the CIA World Factbook, labeled “select a country or location.” The CIA’s inclusion of uninhabited, dependent territories is appropriate, as is its goal is to provide information, not to register residency. I do wonder, however, whether such sandy specks as the Ashmore and Cartier Islands merit inclusion in their own right. The most amusing aspect of the list, however, is the manner in which it treats Taiwan. Although the list is otherwise strictly alphabetical, Taiwan comes after Zambia and Zimbabwe. Such a maneuver signals Taiwan’s ambiguous geopolitical situation in an equally ambiguous manner.

Neutral Zones at the Boundaries Dividing Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco

The Wikipedia maps of Ceuta and Melilla show a double boundary separating Spanish from Moroccan territory, with a neutral zone in between. Such a depiction is unusual: borders between political entities are conventionally conceptualized as one-dimensional lines, with length but no breadth. One can, for example, easily imagine standing with one foot in Canada and one in the United States.

Such a conception of political boundaries is a relatively recent development. In much of the world, borders between states were traditionally treated as transitional zones rather than as stark lines of demarcation. Even in the twentieth century, stalled border negotiations occasionally resulted in the formal delineation of interstitial areas between sovereign states. The world’s last such “neutral zone,” a parallelogram of desert sandwiched between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, was not erased from the world map until 1991. The two countries had agreed to split the region ten years earlier, but as they never informed the United Nations of their accord, the zone retained its international standing. A decade earlier, another neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had been divided and annexed by the two countries.

Even where they are conceptualized as a razor-thin line, moreover, many boundaries are still constructed in depth, especially those separating hostile countries. The prime example is the four-kilometer-wide “demilitarized zone” dividing North Korea from South Korea – perhaps the world’s most heavily militarized area. The strips of land around Melilla and Ceuta once had military functions too, but today they serve mostly to deter illegal immigration.

As recently as the 1990s, Melilla and Morocco were separated by little more than rolls of barbed wire along an undeveloped ribbon of land. Residents of Morocco and neighboring countries learned that crossing this lightly defended frontier was an easy way to gain entry into the EU. In 1999, with European resistance to immigration mounting, the boundary was strengthened with additional fencing.

The new barrier did not prove adequate to the job. Desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa increasingly tried to storm the fence in human waves. Attempts peaked on September 27, 2005, when, as reported by the Associated Press, “some 1,000 men tried to clamber over the fences in twin assaults on Melilla’s crescent-shaped perimeter. About 300 made it in.” (In the previous two weeks, crowds had rushed the frontier five times; some 700 had succeeded in climbing over.) Two days later, a similar action occurred at Ceuta’s border. Spanish troops fired on the would-be immigrants with rubber bullets; Moroccan forces evidently used live ammunition. As many as eighteen people were killed, and more than fifty were injured.

Spain responded to these incursions by again reinforcing the border. As a recent article in The Guardian reported:

The city [of Melilla] erected an intimidating new barrier – two parallel 4m wire fences, topped with razor wire and with a tarmac strip running between patrolled by the Spanish Guardia Civil, all of it monitored by 106 video cameras, infrared surveillance, a microphone cable and helicopters. In Melilla, a man who had worked on the fence told me he would arrive at work in the morning to find his ladder covered in blood, where migrants had tried to use it to climb into the city and had become victims of the razor wire.”

Spanish forces subsequently cleared out camps of sub-Saharan migrants that had been established in the buffer zone between the outer security fence and the town. Both Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières accused Spain of dumping more than 500 of these prospective migrants into an uninhabited portion of the Sahara.

Separation barriers designed primarily to prevent illegal immigration are becoming an increasingly common feature of the world’s borderlands. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, migration-deterring barricades exist now or are being built between Botswana and Zimbabwe, Brunei and Malaysia, China and North Korea, Egypt and Gaza, India and Bangladesh, South Africa and Mozambique, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, United Arab Emirates and Oman, the United States and Mexico, and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.