corfu channel case: united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland v. albania (1949 judgment)

Full information of the case can be found here: http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=3&case=1&code=cc&p3=0

Judgment of April 1949 by the International Court of Justice:

Background:

  • Judgment concerns an incident in October 1946 where two British warships struck mines in Albanian waters and suffered serious damage, including loss of life.
  • The United Kingdom submitted the incident to the United Nations Security Council, where it was in turn referred to the International Court of Justice (“the Court”).
  • After an initial objection by Albania, in 1948 the Court came to a conclusion that it had jurisdiction to make a judgment on this matter.  

Case:

  • Both the United Kingdom and Albania agreed for the Court to give judgment on the following two questions:
  • 1. Is Albania responsible for the explosions, and is there a duty to pay compensation?
  • 2. Has the United Kingdom violated international law by the acts of its Navy in Albanian waters, first on the day on which the explosions occurred (October 1946) and, secondly, on November 12th and 13th of 1948, when it overtook a sweep of the Strait?

Judgment of April 1949:

  • 1. By 11 votes against 5, the Court declared that Albania was responsible.
  • 2.(a) By 14 votes against 2, the Court declared that the United Kingdom did not violate Albanian sovereignty on October 1946.
  • 2.(b) The Court unanimously declared that the United Kingdom violated Albanian sovereignty on November 12th and 13th 1946.

Further reading:

  • There were three separate incidents at sea involving the United Kingdom and Albania in 1946.
  • 1. On 15th May 1946 an Albanian artillery battery fired in the direction of two British cruisers. The United Kingdom protested, stating that innocent passage through sovereign territory is recognised by international law. The United Kingdom further stated that if in the future fire was opened on British ships, the fire would be returned. Her Majesty’s Government began to examine their diplomatic relations with Albania and wished to know whether the Albanian government “have learnt to behave themselves.”
  • 2. The incident of 22nd October 1946. Two British destroyers and two cruisers entered the North Corfu Strait. The channel had been regarded as safe from a sweep in 1944 and a further check sweep in 1945. One British destroyer named Saumarez struck a mine and was gravely damaged. The second destroyer named Volage went to her assistance. While towing Saumarez, Volage also struck a mine and was seriously damaged. 45 British officers and sailors lost their lives and 42 others were wounded.
  • 3. After the incident of 22nd October 1946, the United Kingdom sent a note to Albania announcing its intention to sweep the Corfu Channel for mines. Albania responded that it would not consent to this sweep if it came under Albanian territorial waters. The United Kingdom went ahead on November 12th and 13th of 1946 to sweep the Corfu Channel for mines, including in Albanian territorial waters. This sweep resulted in 22 mines being found and cut. The Court found that these 22 mines were of the same type (German GY mines) as those in the October 1946 explosions.
  • The United Kingdom argued that whoever may be responsible for the minelaying, it surely could not have happened without Albania’s knowledge.
  • The Court commented on the Albanian Government’s attitude before and after the explosion. The laying of mines took place at a time where Albania showed its intention to keep a jealous watch of its territorial waters, by requiring prior authorisation before foreign ships entered. This vigilance going so far as to the use of force (shown by the May 1946 incident on point 1.). This seems to suggest that ignorance to the mines pre-explosion is improbable. Furthermore, when the Albanian Government received a note announcing the United Kingdom’s intention to sweep the Corfu Channel (point 3.), Albania protested against the activity of the British fleet in its territorial waters.
  • The Court concluded that the laying of the minefield could not have been accomplished without the knowledge of Albania. It was Albania’s responsibility to notify ships proceeding through the Strait of the danger of mines. Nothing was attempted by Albania to prevent the explosions, and this omission is Albania’s international responsibility.