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The Ba'Ku Land Grab


Prompted by a discussion on the DITL forum, this article is going to be a contemplation of the legal situation which we see in the movie "Star Trek : Insurrection". Thanks go to the participants of the discussion, especially Platonian and Sonic Glitch, for their contributions to the discussion.

Star Trek : Insurrection

The ninth Star Trek movie, “Insurrection”, features a planet located within some sort of nebula called the “Briar Patch”. On this ringed planet live a group of 600 people called the Ba’ku, an apparently primitive culture who are being covertly observed by a Federation team led by Admiral Dougherty, along with a group of aliens called the Son’a. Through various shenanigans, Captain Picard and his intrepid crew discover that the team is not merely observing the planet - they have a secret plan to remove the Ba’ku and transplant them to another planet without their knowledge. The idea is to wait until everyone is sleeping and then beam them all onto a holodeck recreation of their village. They can them make the trip to their new world and be beamed down the same way - hopefully never even knowing that this has been done to them.

The reason behind this is that the Ba’ku world’s ring system is filled with a special type of radiation particles. Exposure to this radiation is extremely beneficial to a person’s health - it suspends or even reverses ageing, can regenerate lost organs, and generally acts as a fountain of youth. The Son’a involved with the project are extremely old and/or diseased, and need the radiation to cure them. Dougherty expects that the Federation’s share will be enough to help billions of people with all sorts of medical problems. The Son’a have a technology which can vacuum up all the radiation from the rings, but with the minor drawback that doing so will destroy all life on the planet. Hence the need to remove the Ba’ku before using it.

Picard strenuously objects to this course of action, and the main thrust of the movie is whether or not Dougherty’s plan is justified - with the movie making the argument that it isn’t.

I find this story very strange, not so much for what it has to say about the issue it raises but for what it leaves unsaid, and the assumptions that it seems to rest on. Picard’s point of view is almost wholly a morality-based one. He talks about the impact on the Ba’ku, he talks about whether the Federation has a moral right to determine where and how they will live. He refers only once to the legality of what is happening, in this conversation : 

Picard : "I won't let you move them, Admiral. I will take this to the Federation Council."
Dougherty : "I'm acting on orders form the Federation Council."
Picard : "How can there be an order to abandon the Prime Directive?"
Dougherty : "The Prime Directive doesn't apply. These people are not indigenous to this planet. They were never meant to be immortal. We'll simply be restoring them to their natural evolution."
Picard : "Who the hell are we to determine the next course of evolution for these people?"
Dougherty : "Jean-Luc, there are six hundred people down there. We'll be able to use the regenerative properties of this radiation to help billions. ...The Son'a have developed a procedure to collect the metaphasic particles from the planets rings."
Picard : "A planet in Federation space."
Dougherty : "That's right. We have the planet. They have the technology. ...A technology we can't duplicate. You know what that makes us? Partners."
Picard : "Our partners are nothing more than petty thugs."
Dougherty : "On Earth, petroleum once turned petty thugs into world leaders. Warp drive transformed a bunch of Romulan thugs into an Empire. We can handle the Son'a. I'm not worried about that."
Picard : "Someone probably said the same thing about the Romulans a century ago."
Dougherty : "With metaphasics, life spans will be doubled. ...An entire new medical science will evolve. I understand your Chief Engineer has the use of his eyes for the first time in his life. ...Would you take that away from him?"
Picard : "There are metaphasic particles all over the Briar Patch. Why does it have to be this planet?"
Dougherty : "It's the concentration in the rings that makes the whole damned thing work. Don't ask me to explain it. I only know they inject something into the rings that starts a thermolytic reaction. When it's over, the planet will be uninhabitable for generations."
Picard : "Admiral, delay the procedure. Let my people look at the technology."
Dougherty : "Our best scientific minds already have. We can't find any other way to do this."
Picard : "Then the Son'a can establish a separate colony on this planet until we do."
Dougherty : "It would take ten years of normal exposure to begin to reverse their condition. Some of them won't survive that long. Besides, they don't want to live in the middle of the Briar Patch. Who would?"
Picard : "The Ba'ku. We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded. It's an attack upon its very soul. And it will destroy the Ba'ku, just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocation throughout history."
Dougherty : "Jean-Luc, we are only moving six hundred people."
Picard : "How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? How many people does it take, Admiral?"
Dougherty : "I’m ordering you to the Goren system. I'm also ordering the release of the Son'a officers. File whatever protest you wish to, Captain. By the time you do, this will all be done."

So. Picard’s position is that messing about with the Ba’ku is a violation of the Prime Directive, which it certainly seems to be. Dougherty counters that since the people are not indigenous, the Prime Directive doesn’t apply. This seems like a rather iffy proposition to me, but let’s go with it. He also indicates that he is acting on orders from the Federation Council, which also seems a little iffy. But let’s go with that. As I said earlier, my concern isn’t so much with the points they argue as the implications behind the situation that are not addressed.

Namely… just what areas of space does the Federation claim control over, and on what basis? And what legal rights do they claim to have over those who live within that area?

See, I always kind of assumed that “Federation space” and “Klingon space” worked much like the concept of territorial waters do in the oceans today. If your country includes shoreline on the ocean, then you get to claim the waters out to 12 nautical miles as your own. You then get another 12 miles further out which you don’t own, but can exercise some control over - policing it for customs, that kind of thing. And then you get to have exclusive economic control over an area up to 200 nautical miles out. This is the area you get to use for fishing grounds, drill for oil, conduct mining, all that kind of thing. Other countries aren’t allowed to conduct such activities within your exclusive area unless you agree to allow them.

So I always assumed that if you were a Federation planet like Earth of Vulcan, you got to claim the space around your system out to some distance - a couple of light years, say.

Of course that raises the question of what happens if somebody else lives within your waters. For example, the coastline of Eire lies well within 200 miles of the UK. In cases like this, the two countries generally get together and draw a mutually agreeable line to divide the overlapping territory between them. Sometimes that’s not so easy - as I write this China and Vietnam are engaged in an international crisis because China is drilling for oil in an area that both parties claim to be theirs. Wars have started over less.

We’ve heard of similar territorial disputes in Star Trek before. For example there is the original series episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, in which both the Federation and the Klingon Empire laid claim to Sherman’s planet. Under the terms of the Organian Peace Treaty, the planet would fall under the control of whichever side could develop it most efficiently. This might be akin to how a body like the UN might intervene in a potential conflict and act as an arbiter - though in the case of the Organians the arbitration was forced on the Federation and Klingons, whereas the UN rarely tries to force solutions.

So far so good. But I always assumed that Sherman’s planet was uninhabited, or perhaps inhabited by a colony made up of some Federation citizens or some Klingon citizens, or even both. Point being, it was a new world being opened up for development.

The Ba’ku planet is clearly not. It’s a world with it’s own existing population, one that is native so far as Starfleet knows. The Ba’ku clearly don’t even know of the Federation’s existence. They’re not Federation citizens, they’re not Federation voters, they have no voice in Federation politics.

This is rather as if in the modern world, the UK said to Eire “Hey, your island falls inside our territorial limits. Therefore, we’ve decided that we own your island. You have no right to self government or self determination; we own you, and so we’re going to send the army in to loot it of everything valuable so we can distribute that wealth to our citizens. So screw you guys.”

Or consider that geographical oddity, the enclave. An enclave is a country which is surrounded by another state. A good example is the Kingdom of Lesotho, a 12,700 square mile country with two million people living in it which is entirely surrounded by South Africa. Can you imagine South Africa simply declaring that since Lesotho lay within it’s borders then they owned the country and could do whatever they wanted to it? Or take the Vatican, which is entirely surrounded by Italy. Suppose the Italians drugged all the inhabitants and moved them out one night so they could then steal the Vatican’s immense collection of artwork and distribute it to the population. How do you think the world would react to such an action?

So what we have here is a situation in which the Federation can just pick out a block of space and decide that it belongs to them, even though it's occupied by people that have absolutely nothing to do with the Federation. And then on that basis, the Federation can decide that it has the legal right to confiscate property from those people. By force. People who have no right to vote for the Federation government, no right to petition it, no right of due process... who have none of that because they don't even know the Federation government exists.

There is a name for the process of deciding that you have legal jurisdiction over people that weren't part of your government until you decided that they were. It's called "conquest". And there's a name for the type of government that exercises authority over people who have no voice in the process of government, no legal right of appeal, and no redress of grievance. It's called "tyranny".

So is this really how the Federation operates? I mean, I could buy the Klingons saying something like that, sure, but the goody-goody Federation?

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© Graham & Ian Kennedy Page views : 49,390 Last updated : 18 Apr 2020