International Law

The Importance of Corfu Channel Case

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland v. Albania – This dispute gave rise to three Judgments by the Court. It arose out of the explosions of mines by which some British warships suffered damage while passing through the Corfu Channel in 1946, in a part of the Albanian waters which had been previously swept. The ships were severely damaged and members of the crew were killed. The United Kingdom seised the Court of the dispute by an Application filed on 22 May 1947 and accused Albania of having laid or allowed a third State to lay the mines after mine-clearing operations had been carried out by the Allied naval authorities. The case had previously been brought before the United Nations and, in consequence of a recommendation by the Security Council, had been referred to the Court.

In a first Judgment, rendered on 25 March 1948, the Court dealt with the question of its jurisdiction and the admissibility of the Application, which Albania had raised. The Court found, inter alia, that a communication dated 2 July 1947, addressed to it by the Government of Albania, constituted a voluntary acceptance of its jurisdiction. It recalled on that occasion that the consent of the parties to the exercise of its jurisdiction was not subject to any particular conditions of form and stated that, at that juncture, it could not hold to be irregular a proceeding not precluded by any provision in those texts.

A second Judgment, rendered on 9 April 1949, related to the merits of the dispute. The Court found that Albania was responsible under international law for the explosions that had taken place in Albanian waters and for the damage and loss of life which had ensued. It did not accept the view that Albania had itself laid the mines or the purported connivance of Albania with a mine-laying operation carried out by the Yugoslav Navy at the request of Albania. On the other hand, it held that the mines could not have been laid without the knowledge of the Albanian Government. On that occasion, it indicated in particular that the exclusive control exercised by a State within its frontiers might make it impossible to furnish direct proof of facts incurring its international responsibility. The State which is the victim must, in that case, be allowed a more liberal recourse to inferences of fact and circumstantial evidence; such indirect evidence must be regarded as of especial weight when based on a series of facts, linked together and leading logically to a single conclusion. Albania, for its part, had submitted a counter-claim against the United Kingdom. It accused the latter of having violated Albanian sovereignty by sending warships into Albanian territorial waters and of carrying out minesweeping operations in Albanian waters after the explosions. The Court did not accept the first of these complaints but found that the United Kingdom had exercised the right of innocent passage through international straits. On the other hand, it found that the minesweeping had violated Albanian sovereignty, because it had been carried out against the will of the Albanian Government. In particular, it did not accept the notion of “self-help” asserted by the United Kingdom to justify its intervention.

In a third Judgment, rendered on 15 December 1949, the Court assessed the amount of reparation owed to the United Kingdom and ordered Albania to pay £844,000.

Further principles emerging out of the case –

  1. Circumstantial/indirect evidence is admitted in all systems of law and its use is recognized by international decisions.
  2. Res judicata is an acceptable concept in international law.
  3. At the heart of the rules and principles concerning international humanitarian law lies the ‘overriding consideration of humanity’.
  4. Between independent states, respect for territorial sovereignty is an essential foundation of international relations.
  5. The importance Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been highlighted.
  6. The freedom of navigation is a traditional and well-recognized facet of the doctrine of the high seas.
  7. The ICJ also leaned towards the fault theory.
  8. It is the obligation of every state ‘not to allow knowingly its territory to be used for acts contrary to the rights of other states’.
  9. A duty to inform other states of known environmental hazards can be deduced.
  10. With respect to jurisdiction, consent from the unilateral application of the plaintiff state (the United Kingdom) coupled with subsequent letters from the other party involved (Albania) intimated acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction.
  11. This case can also be cited as an example of non-compliance.
  12.  Manifestation of the policy of force has been discouraged.
  13. Can be used to justify reparations.

Sources: ICJ, ICJ and Malcolm N.Shaw, International Law, 6th-edition, 2008

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