Two nations, each with populations of more than 30 million people and each possessing multibillion-dollar economies, are at odds over a rock in the ocean.
The land grab is between Spain and Morocco, but the territorial dispute could just as easily be between several other major countries. India and Pakistan, China and Japan, Greece and Turkey — each are involved in a complex dispute over their territories and borders.
"Sovereignty issues are notoriously difficult to resolve," said Bernard Oxman, a professor of international law at the University of Miami (Fla.). "It's always hard, but not impossible, to get a country to relinquish territory."
Most often, these long running, claim-jumping disputes aren't about the land, but what's beneath it: fish, minerals and oil. But in others, such as last week's flare-up between Spain and Morocco, the tangle boils down to the age-old forces of wealth and hubris.
Specks in the Sea
To Spain, the disputed island off the northern coast of Morocco is called Perejil. To Morocco, it's Leila. Spain has held title to the island for more than three centuries, but hasn't occupied the land in 40 years. In that time, the island's caves have been a hideout for illegal immigrants sneaking into Spain from Morocco.
"It's worthless territory," said Martin Pratt, an executive officer at the International Boundaries Research Unit in Durham, England. "These fights often are just in the foreground, with larger animosities in the background."
The conflict dates back to 1956 when Morocco gained its independence from France. Since then, Moroccans have demanded that Spain hand over all of its protectorates on Morocco's northern coast, including the island of Perejil.
The incident has parallels to a 1996 dispute between Greece and Turkey over the Kardak Rocks, a cluster of inhabited islands about four miles off the coast of Greece. Maritime boundaries in the Aegean Sea have always been a sticking point for the two countries, so when Greece declared its ownership of the land, the two nations nearly went to war. In the end, both did little more than exchange harsh words.
Turkey and Greece also have been in discussions since January to reunify war-torn Cyprus, which both countries have laid claims to for nearly 30 years. The United Nations last scolded Turkey for failing to meet a negotiation deadline.
Like most territorial disputes, the Spain-Morocco dust-up is about resources more important than the goats that call Perejil home.
"One of the big reasons these conflicts exist is not the land per se, but the maritime area they generate rights to," Pratt said.
According to the United Nations' Law of the Sea, passed in 1982, a country is granted 12 miles of territorial water off its coastline, and as well as 200-mile exclusive economic zone, which gives the coastal country rights to the everything below the sea in that region.
Oxman, who contributed to the U.N. law, said that most maritime disputes erupt when economic zones overlap. "Maritime boundaries are fiendishly difficult to agree on," he said.
In 1998, Eritrea and Yemen reached a settlement, with the help of some international arbitration, over the Hanish islands, located in the Red Sea. Oil and tourism drove an invasion by Eriteria — "a serious international incident," according to Pratt — but courts later handed the land back Yemen.
The prospect of offshore oil drilling also drove the quarrel between China, Japan and Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands off the eastern edge of China. Japan controls the islands, but as recently as last year the country expressed concern about a possible attack by China.
The same nations — along with Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — contest control of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, another area rich in fish and gold.
Japan also is involved in squabbles with South Korea and Russia over a scattering of tiny islands. South Korea inhabits Tokdo and Takeshima islands, located between the two nations in the Sea of Japan, but Japan has contested the claim since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Russian gunboats still occasionally fire on Japanese fishermen near the Kurile Islands, which Russia took control of after World War II. Japan contests Russia's claim to four of the islands within the chain, and in 2001 the two countries agreed on the islands' governance without clarifying who owns them.
Other nations around the world battle over smaller pieces of land, though their disputes don't necessarily revolve around islands but more often feature oil.
"There are very few land boundaries in the world that are clearly defined," Pratt said.
Perhaps the most infamous regional dispute is over Kashmir, located between India and Pakistan. The nuclear-capable neighbors have struggled over the region since India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947.
Not all such disputes deadlock in violence. Pratt's office offered assistance recently to the United Nations' International Court of Justice in its decision concerning the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. Both nations claim ownership of the Bakassi peninsula in the Gulf of Guinea, where there is potential for oil offshore, as well as several other smaller regions along their border. Peacefully, both countries brought their case before the court for third-party resolution.
"The International Court plays a very important role in significant conflicts" said Sean Murphy, a former legal adviser to the U.S. State Department who worked in the U.S. Embassy in The Hague. "It's mere presence is an achievement."
Murphy said the biggest obstacle facing the court — one that could prevent it from resolving Spain and Morocco's conflict — was getting both sides of the dispute to come before the court.
That doesn't mean all major nations spurn the court. In 1991, the United States and Canada accepted the International Court's resolution to their dispute over the maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Maine.
Talking It Out
More often, countries will seek third-party arbitration rather than through an institution like the United Nations.
In 1998, a group of neighboring countries, including the United States, helped Ecuador and Peru end their dispute over the border in the Cenepa Valley, which had led to bloodshed several times since the countries gained their independence from Spain in the 19th century.
Other disputes have been tougher to resolve. Venezuela still refuses to acknowledge an 1898 treaty that granted Guyana a 63,000-square-mile region called Essequibo, though reports from December said relations between the countries were on an upswing.
In the Fergana Valley, located on the border of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan, conflict began in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin divided the countries to prevent unity and any attempt at independence.
A peaceful region for many years, the valley's complex mesh of nationalities has been pulled in three different directions, with sporadic incidents of ethnic violence. The region has been of extra concern to the United States because it's been home to a rebirth of Islam — with some groups tied to the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Egypt and Sudan have fought over a stretch of desert called the Halaib Triangle for more than 100 years. Waters off the southeastern corner of Egypt are thought to be rich with oil, so the land's maritime boundaries are of great potential value. Like many other long-standing disputes, poor diplomatic relations between the two countries also has fed the conflict.
Quoting a late friend and geographer, Oxman said, "Where there are maritime boundary disputes, there are resources."