60

There is a very popular ongoing Norwegian petition to give Finland a mountaintop for the 100th anniversary of its independence (6 December 2017), by moving the border a short distance. The barren northern rock is of no particular interest to Norway, but to Finland it would be a new highest peak. I find this improbable but fascinating.

When has a sovereign state most recently organised a voluntary and friendly concession?

Voluntarily merging the entire country with another doesn't count. Both must exist independently afterward for it to have been a gift!

  • 1
    Decolonisation and boundary adjustments provide numerous examples. – user207421 Sep 21 '16 at 0:02
  • 1
    Would a voluntary end of occupation such as America's return of Iwo Jima to Japan in 1968 meet the criteria? – Readin Sep 21 '16 at 3:58
  • 2
    Do you include gifts of land property without sovereignty? – Anton Sherwood Sep 21 '16 at 7:39
  • 18
    Not quite an example, but related: In WWII, the Canadians temporarily declared that the maternity ward in Ottowa's Civic Hospital was not part of Canada. This was because of the birth of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands (her parents were in exile). Canadian citizenship would have caused a problem with succession laws in the Netherlands. – Joel Sep 21 '16 at 16:03
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    @cat - I was asking for clarification as to whether micronations count. If I hear back in the affirmative, I will post an answer which will be more compelling than the comment. – Scott Sep 25 '16 at 21:29

18 Answers 18

40

The UK transferred full sovereignty of its colony of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China on July 1, 1997. While the UK was already obligated by treaty to turn over the areas of the territory that was covered by the 99-year lease (the "New Territories"), it decided to return the island of Hong Kong itself as well as Kowloon, which was voluntary at least in the sense that no treaty required it.

One could make an argument that the transfer was influenced by political pressure from the PRC and the possibility of an invasion, but there was no actual violence.

As @Relaxed and @TheHonRose mentioned, the UK also realized that the New Territories were essential to the survival of the colony and that a new, smaller colony consisting only of the island of Hong Kong proper plus Kowloon would not have been viable. There were population issues (are they all going to move across the border overnight?) as well as issues with essential infrastructure like ports being located in the New Territories.

  • 16
    I'm not sure this transfer meets the OP's criteria of voluntary and friendly - it was impractical to separate Hong Kong from the New Territories, and Britain wanted to protect Hong Kong's (British) citizens as much as possible. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfer_of_sovereignty_over_Hong_Kong – TheHonRose Sep 21 '16 at 2:54
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    @TheHonRose Related: history.stackexchange.com/questions/17648/… ;) – PTwr Sep 21 '16 at 12:52
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    @RedSonja I'm British too, and think there was no way the UK could/would have kept Hong Kong by force of arms, so it negotiated the best deal it could under the circumstances. – TheHonRose Sep 21 '16 at 15:13
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    More than an actual invasion, the primary concern is that the limit of the new territories cut right through the city (not to mention all the people living there and commuting to Hong Kong proper and major infrastructure like the new airport). HK was not considered viable without them. (I am just reiterating what has been said in other comments but I think you should add a remark about this directly in the answer.) – Relaxed Sep 22 '16 at 7:53
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    @IanRingrose this was true for the New Territories, but not for Hong Kong Island itself or Kowloon. – Robert Columbia Sep 24 '16 at 16:18
34

The Tiran and Sanafir islands, are being given by Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Since this is ongoing, it is certainly the most recent such transfer.

As of this writing, all the interested sovereign states (Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia) have consented to the transfer, but it may be held up in Egyptian courts and parliamentary debates.

The actual ownership of the two islands is not clear. Between WWI and 1967 Egypt controlled them. Israel conquered them in 1967, and returned them to Egypt in 1982. However Saudi Arabia has claimed ownership all the time.

As part of an agreement to build a causeway that will connect Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Egypt ceded or returned the islands, depending on the different interpretations.

  • 1
    Wikipedia now notes that: "On 14 June 2017, Egypt's House Committee on Defence and National Security unanimously approved the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia" – Azsgy Mar 7 at 15:27
31

My proposal has to be considered with a grain of salt, and is earlier than TheHonRose's answer.

That said, given the consequences it has had lately, I am a little surprised that nobody has written about transfer of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1954.

Yes, the Ukranian SSR was part of the Soviet Union at the time, but:

  • The SU was a Federation.
  • The RSFSR agreed to the change.
  • The Ukranian SSR was an independent subject of international law to a certain extent (to the point of getting an independent membership to the UN).

And of course, I doubt that the people doing the transfer thought at the time that they were "giving" anything but simply doing an administrative reorganization (with the end result that Crimea was managed from Moscow through Kyiv instead of being directly managed from Moscow), but from a legal point it does not matter.

As stated before, this answer comes with a lot of caveats, but I think it is worth mentioning it due to the size of the land transfer.

  • 5
    And, as a curiosity, the case of Bir Tawil which both neighbouring countries claim that it belongs to the other. – SJuan76 Sep 20 '16 at 23:37
  • 1
    Did you mean to write "Ukraine was an independent subject of international law to a certain extent", rather than USSR which is synonymous with SU as far as I am aware? I see Ukraine listed as an original member of the United Nations in Wikipedia. – njuffa Sep 21 '16 at 2:18
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    @njuffa I meant Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic, but I failed to foresee the mix of acronyms (I usually see SU for Soviet Union being used). I have clarified the text, thank you. – SJuan76 Sep 21 '16 at 7:19
  • 2
    If this counts, there were numerous such peaceful transfers of territory between US states as well... – T.E.D. Sep 22 '16 at 13:48
  • 1
    @ErikE Its official name (at the time of land transfer) was Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic – SJuan76 Sep 24 '16 at 17:10
20

Here's my best shot so far:

The areas occupied by American and Canadian military cemeteries in Normandy were voluntarily conceded by France to the respective ally in 1944 as a gesture of gratitude.

Of those, the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial is the most recent for which establishment I can find a full date, which is 1944-08-04.

  • 6
    A "concession" in the sense that those cemeteries are concessions doesn't seem like what you're asking about. The cemeteries remain French sovereign territory; the US is allowed to use them tax-free and rent-free in perpetuity, but only so long as they're used for the burial of Americans who died in WWII and/or war monuments (plus whatever's needed to maintain them). – cpast Sep 21 '16 at 15:17
  • 4
    If this was actually true, then there would be people squatting there to give birth to children on US soil and acquire citizenship. – smci Sep 22 '16 at 7:12
  • @smci: I'm really sure that trick doesn't work. We've had enough trouble with Mexicans pulling it where we actually control the territory. If anybody tried such a thing as this it would be surely cast down by the people. – Joshua Sep 25 '16 at 15:19
14

The area of the The John F Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede, site of the signing of Magna Carta, was gifted to the USA in 1965. Whilst the surrounding gardens are British sovereign territory, the land is owned by the US Federal Government, and the site of the actual memorial is US sovereign territory.

enter image description here

  • 18
    From the linked Wikipedia article: "Though property ownership was transferred to the federal government of the United States, the area remains under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom." This appears to directly conflict with your statement "the site of the actual memorial is US sovereign territory." – Nateowami Sep 21 '16 at 2:46
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    @TheHonRose Embassies are a different situation and are not technically the territory of the sending country (in particular, the receiving country has the right to eject the whole thing, in case of ending diplomatic relations) – Random832 Sep 21 '16 at 3:25
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    @TheHonRose people would come there to bear children so to get US citizenship. – Anixx Sep 21 '16 at 6:46
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    JSTOR quotes the JFK Memorial Act as vesting the land as "an estate in fee simple absolute." That is not a transfer of sovereignty; it's the normal way you own property in England, and the US owns the land only in the sense that someone might own a house. – cpast Sep 21 '16 at 14:54
  • 2
    It's indeed true that the objections apply equally to both answers and kind of odd that the OP posted an answer about cemeteries that does not seem to address the question. But it's still undoubtedly true that neither the John F Kennedy memorial stone nor the war cemeteries are not US territory in the usual international law sense. (Incidentally, British and French citizens might not be that desperate but there are certainly a number of people who reside there, legally or illegally, for whom US citizenship would make things easier.) – Relaxed Sep 23 '16 at 6:27
14

In 2007, Israel gave Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, in an (evidently unsuccessful) effort to reduce tensions.

Since the OP doesn't state that the recipient must be a nation, only that it must still exist, we needn't enter the debate on whether the PA is a nation for the purposes of answering this question.

The OP may need to clarify whether this transfer meets his intended meaning of "friendly," but it was certainly voluntary, coming as it did as a surprise to almost everyone.

  • 2
    It was in 2005. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_disengagement_from_Gaza – Ari Brodsky Sep 21 '16 at 17:39
  • 6
    The question is "When has a sovereign state last given territory to another as a gift?" I suppose that might be somewhat ambiguously worded, but I'm pretty sure the intention is "another [sovereign state]". – Daniel Sep 21 '16 at 21:03
  • Excellent point. Absent the OP, I agree with you. Since the OP is (theoretically) available, I'll defer to his/her authority as to whether this is what (s)he has in mind. Although the PA meets some of the criteria of a sovereign state, it does not meet all. (At the very least, it has only limited control over its borders and trade.) – Jeffiekins Sep 22 '16 at 16:59
  • That wasn't a gift, it was an unsuccessful attempt to pacify the terrorists. Unfortunately, in that land a gesture of good will is invariably interpreted as a sign of weakness, and intifada continued. There were popular cartoons at that time: an American Indian says to Israeli PM: "Let me tell you what happens when you trade land for peace..." – Michael Sep 28 '16 at 16:08
  • I content that it was a gift, given with the intention of pacifying the public and/or terrorists. Anything of value given not for a price, even with future expectations, is a gift. I suggest that most gifts are given with the intention of pacifying the recipient. (I'm completely ignoring the question of "what's the difference between the public and terrorists in Gaza" as not appropriate on this page.) – Jeffiekins Sep 28 '16 at 20:26
13

I'm not sure if this counts, but the Netherlands and Belgium traded a small part of land a while ago.

The reason for the trade was that the piece of land was officially part of Belgium, but it was situated directly adjacent to the Netherlands while separated from the rest of Belgium by a river. For this reason, they traded it with another piece of land.

Source for this: Limburg en België ruilen stukjes land (only in Dutch unfortunately).

  • 2
    Similarly there was (iirc) a transfer between Texas and Mexico caused by a shift of the boundary river. The land in question had been in legal limbo for generations. (See also Liberland.) – Anton Sherwood Sep 21 '16 at 7:51
  • 4
    The article uses the horrible unit for surface area of "football pitches". Why oh why do people do that? :-( – gerrit Sep 21 '16 at 11:12
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    Metric football pitches or American Customary football pitches? – Mark Sep 21 '16 at 17:44
  • 2
    I found a source in English: dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3378842/… – Olivier Grégoire Sep 22 '16 at 12:04
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    @Mark the original imperial size ones not American or metric – Mark Sep 23 '16 at 19:22
10

In late 1994 or 1995 Israel gave a small strip of farm land to Jordan after the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. This land was not part of the treaty but as it was east of the river (and I believe conquered in 1967 along with the West Bank) it was given as a token to the Kingdom.

  • It is still farmed by Israelis. They have to cross the border every day. This right was given to the local Kibbutz by King Hussein. – ExpatEgghead Sep 23 '16 at 8:54
  • @ExpatEgghead: Thank you, I did not know that. Would you happen to know what the place is called? – dotancohen Sep 23 '16 at 10:13
  • I am fairly certain it's Menahemia. – ExpatEgghead Sep 23 '16 at 12:21
4

In 1994 South Africa transfered the enclave Walfis Bay and some offshore islands to the Republic of Namibia. Walfis Bay is the largest port and one of only two natural ports on the Namibian coast, so it was quite a significant act for Namibia.

3

Yesterday (2016-09-21) Slovak republic approved a constitutional law changing the border with Hungary. However, it's a territory swap, and while voluntary, it's based more on convenience (changing river basin) than generosity and friendship.

  • 3
    Could you add a bit of context about the deal beyond the minimum amount in the linked article (which appears to assume readers either already know or won't care about the details). – Dan Neely Sep 23 '16 at 14:32
  • I found this article which appears to be original but all the other ones I could find by searching around cite the spectator.sme.sk one. – cat Sep 25 '16 at 12:12
3

On the first of march in 1952 Heligoland was given back to Germany by the United Kingdom after it has been used as a target for Air Force bombardment training after the second world war.

3

A corner case: In 1921 Germany ceded a large part of southern Jutland to Denmark.

This was not really voluntary on part of the Germans, since the Treaty of Versailles ordered a plebiscite to adjust the border. (On the other hand, when Germany invaded and occupied Denmark just 19 years later, they made no attempt to reintegrate this area into the Reich, despite the Nazi leadership's general disdain for Versailles and otherwise aggressive territorial ambitions, so the loss cannot have been very deeply mourned).

But from the Danish end it certainly looked like a free gift -- Denmark had remained neutral through WWI and was not a party to the Treaty of Versailles, and the plebiscite covered only areas that were German prior to the war, so there was not even a theoretical possibility of Denmark losing territory in the transaction.

It could be argued that WWI belligerents together gave northern Schleswig to Denmark for no consideration.

2

On September 20, 1979, the US signed a treaty with Kiribati abandoning its claims on several islands ("Canton (Kanton), Enderbury, Hull (Orona), Birnie, Gardner (Nikumaroro), Phoenix (Rawaki), Sydney (Manra), McKean, Christmas (Kiritimati), Caroline, Starbuck, Malden, Flint, and Vostok"). It appears that sovereignty over the islands was disputed, but the treaty clearly had a similar effect to an outright gift of undisputed territory. It also is pretty clear that the USA could have retained the islands by force if it had wanted to, so this wasn't a case of surrendering territory under serious threat of conquest.

  • I think the entire State of Kentucky was "gifted" as it used to be part of Virginia. West Virginia was of course not gifted Statehood...but still maintains the status. – Doctor Zhivago Sep 21 '16 at 21:17
2

I am not sure this counts as a "gift", but one option to consider is Pheasant Island, an island in the Bidasoa river at the border between Spain and France.

It is a peculiar case of a condominium, in which France and Spain do not share the sovereignty, but instead alternate it in periods of 6 months. Each year, France officially exercises sovereignty over the island from August to January, while Spain does from February to July (link in French).

Therefore, the last change (to date) was on 1st August 2016, when Spain transferred sovereignty over the island to France (the next one will be on 1st February 2017, from France to Spain, and so on). This is definitely a "friendly" transfer, but I am not sure you would count it as "voluntary", as it follows from an international treaty (Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659 and Treaty of Bayonne of 1856).

1

If you allow swaps, there's the recent (much delayed!) case of the Cooch Behar enclaves: 162 small patches transferred.

Also Verenahof, a former German exclave (529 912 m²; I don't know what that is in football pitches) transferred to Switzerland in 1967 in exchange for a similar area of land.

1

When Britain pulled out of Aden, which became South Yemen in 1967, it voluntarily returned to Oman the Kuria Muria Islands, which were off the Omani coast and had been governed from Aden.

0

In October 2008 the Israeli government agreed to transfer to Russia Sergei's Courtyard, a part of the Russian compound and which had been housing offices of Israel's Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The government departments housed there were relocated in March 2011. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Compound

-1

I'm sure not what you're looking for, but as a technicality: The property of an embassy is normally considered the sovereign territory of the country staffing the embassy, and not of the host country. So any time a new embassy opens, the host country is donating some land to the foreign country. North Korea opened an embassy in Belarus on Sept 18, 2016, so that's probably the most recent such case.

Update

Okay, this looks like a word game. Of course, diplomacy is often all about word games.

Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (http://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/9_1_1961.pdf), Article 22, "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission. ... 3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution." And Article 23, "The sending State and the head of the mission shall be exempt from all national, regional or municipal dues and taxes in respect of the premises of the mission ..."

The Vienna Convention does not use the words "soveriegn territory" or any similar phrase, either to say embassy premises are the territory of the host or the sender.

The US state department web site says, "While diplomatic spaces remain the territory of the host state, an embassy or consulate represents a sovereign state. International rules do not allow representatives of the host country to enter an embassy without permission --even to put out a fire -- and designate an attack on an embassy as an attack on the country it represents." (http://diplomacy.state.gov/discoverdiplomacy/diplomacy101/places/170537.htm)

So ... the embassy property is the territory of the host country, but they cannot enforce their laws there nor collect taxes there, and an attack on embassy property is considered an attack on the sending country.

And by the way, embassy grounds are normally patrolled by soldiers or other armed personnel of the sending country.

It sounds to me like a very fine hair to split, to say that the sending country sets and enforces the laws, has sole right to impose taxes, and maintains troops on this piece of land ... but it's not their land: the land belongs to another country that does NOT set or enforce any laws, impose any taxes, and is not allowed to send troops in.

In a brief web search I found plenty of sources saying an embassy is the territory of the host and plenty saying it's the territory of the sending nation. e.g. host: https://www.aleksandreia.com/2012/10/29/why-american-embassies-are-foreign-territory/; sender: http://www.lawndalenews.com/2012/08/embassy-sovereignty-is-sovereignty/; some of each: https://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070110055033AArqDLB.

  • 3
    This answer would benefit from sources (particularly since it is factually incorrect. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 23 '16 at 15:58
  • 2
    @MarkC.Wallace My reply is long, so I made it an update to my original post. – Jay Sep 23 '16 at 21:48
  • 2
    One thing that shows that embassies ultimately remain the sovereign territory of the receiving state is that if the receiving state unilaterally decides to expel the embassy, it is merely a (serious) diplomatic slight, not an act of war. – Henning Makholm Sep 24 '16 at 6:43

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