Navassa Island, UMMOA


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Navassa Island History and Facts
Despite an earlier claim by Haiti, Navassa Island was annexed by U.S. under an act of Congress, dated 18 August 1856 (48 U.S.C. 1411-1419, 11 Stat. 120). Haiti protested the annexation, but the US rejected the Haitian claim. Now part of U.S., but also claimed by Columbia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Honduras.
Navassa is a pear-shaped island in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Jamaica about 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The land area of Navassa exceeds two square miles and the island is marked by imposing limestone cliffs on all sides, rising 10 to 150 feet above sea level. It is almost completely surrounded by a reef that impedes access to it except through a narrow gap.

Navassa Island

Navassa was discovered by Peter Duncan, who claimed the island for the United States in 1857, under the Guano Islands Act of 1856. Navassa is also claimed by Haiti, Cuba, Columbia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Honduras. Haiti has claimed the island in its constitution and in documents describing its official boundaries. However, the United States has viewed Navassa as its possession since 1857, and has disputed the claims of Haiti and all the other claimants since then.

Navassa Island has come to the attention of the Supreme Court through two cases, the better-known of which, Jones v. United States, involved the question of whether a federal court in the United States had jurisdiction over a crime committed on Navassa. The defendant Jones, a laborer employed by the Navassa Phosphate Company, took part in a riot on Navassa in 1889 in which one of the company officers was killed. Jones was tried and convicted in federal court in Baltimore for the murder.

The Guano Islands Act provides that guano islands claimed on behalf of the United States may "be considered as appertaining to the United States," and that any crime committed on such an island would be deemed as having been committed on the high seas on board a U.S. vessel and be punished according to the laws of the United States. The Supreme Court found that the Secretary of State had properly proclaimed Navassa as a possession of the United States based on Peter Duncan's petition filed under the Guano Islands Act, and that the district court in Baltimore had proper jurisdiction. In reaching its decision, the Court observed:
By the law of nations, recognized by all civilized States, dominion of new territory may be acquired by discovery and occupation, as well as by cession or conquest; and when citizens or subjects of one nation, in its name, and by its authority or with its assent, take and hold actual, continuous and useful possession, (although only for the purpose of carrying on a particular business, such as catching and curing fish, or working mines,) of territory unoccupied by any other government or its citizens, the nation to which they belong may exercise such jurisdiction and for such period as it sees fit over territory so acquired.
In the second case, Peter Duncan's widow claimed profits from the Navassa Phosphate Company or, in the alternative, possession of part of the island. Peter Duncan's interest in Navassa had been assigned to the Navassa Phosphate Company. Duncan's widow based her claim on her dower right, the interest in her husband's property that a widow had under the law at that time.

In holding that Mrs. Duncan had no property right to the island, the Supreme Court observed that nothing in the Guano Islands Act obliges the United States to retain possession of islands claimed under the act after the guano is removed. With respect to the discoverer, the only right the act confers is "a license to occupy the island to remove the guano; this right cannot last after the guano is removed." Moreover, by the express terms of the act, this right can be terminated at any time "at the pleasure of the Congress."

In 1913, the Congress provided funds to build a lighthouse on Navassa to safeguard the increased number of ships passing the area following the opening of the Panama Canal. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in 1916 that, pursuant to the United States' original claim under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and subsequent congressional action in the Appropriation Act of 1913 providing for the construction of a lighthouse, Navassa was reserved for "lighthouse purposes . . . deemed necessary in the public interest."

The status of Navassa has recently come under scrutiny. In August of 1996, after determining that a light on Navassa was no longer needed in view of advances in electronic navigation, the Coast Guard deactivated the light and removed signs indicating the island was a restricted area. On January 16, 1997, the Secretary of the Interior delegated responsibility for the civil administration of Navassa to the Office of Insular Affairs.

Following the removal of the light and the signs by the Coast Guard in August 1996, an American salvager presented a claim to Navassa to the Department of State under the Guano Islands Act. On March 27, 1997, the Department of the Interior, having in the meantime assumed administrative jurisdiction over Navassa, denied the claimant's application for an exclusive permit to mine guano on the island. The Department concluded that the Guano Islands Act applies only to islands which, at the time of the claim, are not "appertaining to" the United States. The Department's opinion said that Navassa is and remains a U.S. possession "appertaining to" the United States and is "unavailable to be claimed" under the Guano Islands Act. The opinion also concluded that, even if the Guano Islands Act could be construed to permit the federal government to grant patents to mine guano on islands already within the possession of the United States, the Department would reject such an application on policy grounds.