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The Corfu Channel Case: United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland v/s The People’s Republic Of Albania 1949

In Corfu Channel Case two british destroyers were damaged, including major casualties, after they encountered mines in Albanian seas on October 22, 1946, in the Corfu Strait. The Government of the People's Republic of Albania was sued by the Government of the United Kingdom on May 22, 1947, in an effort to get a ruling that the Albanian government was legally accountable for the incident's effects and had to make amends or pay compensation. Albania, for its part, had made a counter-claim against the United Kingdom for having breached Albanian territorial waters. The explosions, as well as the damage and casualties incurred by the United Kingdom as a result, were determined to be Albania's fault by the Court on April 9, 1949.

The explosions, as well as the ensuing damage and casualties to the United Kingdom, were determined to be Albania's fault by the court. The Court also determined that the United Kingdom's later minesweeping had gone against Albanian sovereignty. The Court instructed Albania to compensate the United Kingdom on December 19, 1949.

Facts of the case
On 15 May 1946, the British warships went through the Corfu Strait. They were shot at because they disregarded the Albanian government's request for permission to do so. Subsequently, on October 22, 1946, a group of British warships (two cruisers and two destroyers) left the port of Corfu and sailed across a section of the North Corfu Strait that had previously been mined. A mine struck both destroyers, severely damaging them. Several deaths were also brought on by this catastrophe.

The two ships were mined in a waterway that had been swept and checked-swept in Albanian territorial seas. After the explosions on 22nd October, the UK Government issued a note to the Albanian Government. The memo announced the UK government's impending sweep of the Corfu Channel. On October 31, London received a response from the Albanian government. It claimed that unless the operation in question took place outside of Albania's territorial waters, the Albanian Government would not consent to it. On 1 November 1946, the International Central Mine Clearing Board, at the UK government's request, agreed that there should be another sweep of the English Channel. It should, however, be contingent on Albania's approval.

The United Kingdom Government told the Albanian Government on November 10 that the aforementioned sweep would occur on November 12.

According to a statement made by the Albanian government on November 11th, the sweeping of the navigational channel by the British fleet poses no issue for Albania. But, it thought it was important to define what portion of the sea should be recognised to be this channel before beginning the sweeping. It suggested the creation of a Mixed Commission to accomplish this. The Albanian government made it plain that any sweeping carried out inside Albanian territorial waters without its permission will be seen as a willful infringement of Albanian sovereignty. The British government then carried out "Operation Retail" on November 12 and 13.

  1. Whether Albania liable under international law for the mine explosions that took place on October 22, 1946, in Albanian waters, along with the resulting equipment damage and fatalities?
  2. Whether the United Kingdom infringed Albania's sovereignty by conducting minesweeping operations without the government's permission?
  3. Whether the United Kingdom entitled for damages for the loss incurred?

The Court ruled that Albania was liable under international law for the damage and casualties caused by the mine explosions in the Corfu Channel, which happened in Albanian territorial waters. The court stated that because of the British Royal Navy's actions in Albanian waters on October 22, 1946, the United Kingdom did not violate Albania's sovereignty. Yet, when the British Royal Navy initiated the operation for minesweeping in November 1946, it breached the sovereignty of Albania.

This action was not authorised by international organisations that clear minefields, it could not be justified as exercising a right of innocent passage, and it is against international law for a state to build a fleet in the territorial sea. International mine clearing organisations did not approved this operation, it could not be justified as exercising a right of innocent passage, and it is against international law for one state to deploy a fleet in another state's territorial seas and conduct minesweeping operations there.

In a third judgement, given on 15 December 1949, the Court estimated the amount of restitution owing to the United Kingdom and ordered Albania to pay �844,000 as a compensation.

Analysis of the case
The investigation into the Corfu Channel case reveals definte principles, including principle of state responsibility, circumstantial evidence and innocent passage. The court considered the topographical circumstances of the waterway connecting two regions of the high seas and was in fact frequently being used for international navigation.

The North Corfu Channel should be regarded as belonging to the class of international highways through which an innocent transit does not require special approval and cannot be prevented by a coastal State during a time of peace, the Court found after taking into account these numerous factors. The UK government alleged that on October 22nd, 1946, Albania neither disclosed the existence of the minefield nor alerted the British warships of the danger they were approaching.

In conformity with the principle of state responsibility, they should have done all required efforts quickly to notify ships near the danger zone, more specifically those that were approaching that zone. In reality, Albanian officials made no attempt to avert the catastrophe. These serious omissions fall under Albania's international obligation.

However, Albania's duty to alert shipping of the presence of mines in her waters depends on her learning of this fact in sufficient time prior to October 22nd, and the responsibility of the Albanian coastal authorities to alert the British ships depends on the amount of time that passed between the time these ships were reported and the first explosion.

In light of this, the Court came to the conclusion that Albania is obligated to compensate the United Kingdom for the damage and loss of life caused by the explosions that occurred on October 22, 1946, in Albanian waters under the terms of international law. Further, the court stated that the United Kingdom did not violate the People's Republic of Albania's sovereignty as a result of the British Navy's actions in Albanian waters on October 22, 1946. However, the court unified rules that as a result of the British Navy's actions in Albanian waters during the Operation of November 12 and 13, 1946. In this case the issue of Albania's civil accountability for the Corfu Channel's mining and the consequent damage two British naval ships sustained as a result of running into mines.

The Court's opinion on whether the United Kingdom could prove Albania knew about the mines' placement and was accountable for it stated that the fact that a State exercises exclusive territorial control within its borders has an impact on the types of evidence that can be used to prove that State knew about such events.

Due to this exclusive control, the other State, who has suffered a violation of international law, frequently finds it difficult to provide concrete evidence of the events that gave rise to responsibility. In all legal systems, indirect evidence is accepted, and international court rulings have approved its use. When it is founded on a collection of facts that are related to one another and logically lead to a single conclusion, it must be given more weightage.

  • M.P Tandon (2004), International Law and Human Rights, Allahabad Law Agency, Faridabad
  • Harris David (2010), Cases and Materials on International Law, Sweet & Maxwell, Great Britain
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