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A Landmark Showdown on the High Seas: The Corfu Channel Case and Its Impact on Maritime Law

The Corfu Channel Case was the inaugural case in public international law heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As the first case following the ICJ's establishment in 1945, it was deliberated between 1947 and 1949. This case is regarded as one of the most significant and landmark cases concerning the law of the sea, addressing the issue of state responsibility for compensating damages arising from maritime disputes. At the time of this case, there was no well-defined law of the sea, making it a pivotal case for the development of maritime law. The involved parties were the United Kingdom and People's Republic of Albania.

Background and facts of the case
The dispute began with an incident on May 15, 1946, during the Greek Civil War. Two UK cruisers, the Orion and the Superb, passed through the northern part of the Corfu Channel. Albanian forces fired upon these cruisers when they came within 180 meters of the squadron, but no vessels were hit. UK formally protested against it and demanded apology from Albania. Albania claimed that the UK had violated its sovereignty by entering Albanian territorial waters in the Corfu Channel without permission, which was required.

On August 2, the UK declared that the Royal Navy would respond similarly in the future. On October 22, a Royal Navy flotilla, consisting of the cruisers Mauritius and Leander and the destroyers Saumarez and Volage, entered the Corfu Channel. The ships were at action stations with orders to retaliate if anything unusual occurred or if they were attacked. Although their guns were not loaded and were in a neutral position aimed at the shore, the destroyer Saumarez struck a mine, resulting in the deaths of 36 crew members. Shortly afterward, the Volage also struck a mine, causing the deaths of 8 more people.

In November 1946, the UK initiated Operation Retail, during which the Royal Navy conducted a mine clearance operation in the Corfu Channel without obtaining prior permission from the Albanian government. This operation occurred within Albanian territorial waters. The Albanian government lodged a complaint with the United Nations, asserting that this action constituted a breach of their sovereignty due to the unauthorized entry into their territorial waters.

On December 9, the UK demanded reparations from Albania for the losses incurred from the mines. Albania denied any involvement in planting the mines and accused Greece of being responsible. In January 1947, the UK brought the matter before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). On April 9, 1947, the UNSC passed a resolution recommending that both countries resolve the issue at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This recommendation was made pursuant to Article 36, paragraph 3, of the United Nations Charter. Subsequently, on May 22, 1947, the UK filed a suit against Albania in the ICJ.

According to article 36 para 1 of ICJ Statute, International court of justice took over jurisdiction in this case.

Issues to be addressed includes:
  • Albania's liability for the mine explosions that occurred on October 22, 1946, and the resulting damages.
  • Whether Albania's sovereignty was violated by the UK's Operation Retail in Albanian territorial waters.
  • Whether the UK should be awarded damages by Albania for the losses they suffered.

To address the issue number 1, a judgement was rendered on April 9, 1949 by ICJ where court determined that Albania was responsible under international law for the damage caused and loss of life by mine explosions occurred on October 22, 1946.

However, the court did not agree whether the mines was planted by Albania itself in its territorial waters or not but concluded that mines could not have been placed without the knowledge of Albanian government.

To address the issue number 2, the Albania has accused UK that UK entered its territorial waters with war ships and violated its territorial sovereignty and carried out mine sweeping exercise under operation Retail without taking the permission for the same.

In the same judgement of April 9, 1949 court stated that Albania's first complaint is not admissible as UK was exercising its right to innocent passage under international waters but for the second complaint regarding the mine sweeping exercise court held UK liable for the same that minesweeping without its government permission is violation of their sovereignty. Hence, UK would be liable for the same.

To address issue number 3, the ICJ delivered its judgment on December 15, 1949, determining the amount of reparation owed to the United Kingdom. The Court ordered Albania to pay �844,000 in compensation.

The Corfu Channel Case stands as a seminal moment in international law, especially in the context of maritime disputes and state responsibility. Through this case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) established crucial precedents that have influenced the development of the law of the sea.

The ICJ's judgments addressed three critical issues. Firstly, it held Albania responsible under international law for the damage and loss of life resulting from the mine explosions on October 22, 1946. Secondly, while the Court found that the UK's right to innocent passage was valid and Albania's first complaint was inadmissible, it also determined that the UK's mine-sweeping operation in Albanian waters, conducted without prior permission, violated Albania's sovereignty. Lastly, the Court awarded the UK reparations of �844,000, highlighting Albania's liability for the losses suffered by the UK due to the mines.

This case not only resolved a significant dispute between the United Kingdom and Albania but also contributed to the evolution of international maritime law, emphasizing the principles of state responsibility and the right to innocent passage. The decisions made in this case continue to serve as important references for resolving similar international disputes.


Q.1 What is the significance of Corfu Channel Case in international law?
Ans. This case has addressed the key issues of law of sea and state responsibility. Is sets as an important precedent in an international maritime law.

Q.2 What is the name of Operation UK started for sweeping of mines from the territorial waters of Albania?
Ans. Operation Retail.

Q.3 How much in reparation ICJ ordered to Albanian government to pay UK for their loss suffered in mine explosions?
Ans. �844,000

Q.4 How did ICJ took over its jurisdiction under this case?
Ans. Under Art. 36 paragraph 1 of ICJ Statute. Written By: Sana Qureshi, student at Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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