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Corfu Channel Case (United Kingdom v. Albania)

Corfu Channel Case (United Kingdom v. Albania)



The Corfu Channel case is the first major international law case heard by the International Court of Justice from 1947 to 1949. The case dealt with Great Britain’s claims that its ships had been destroyed by the mines planted in the Corfu strait with the knowledge of Albania.


On May 15th, 1946 British warships passed through the Corfu channel without any permission from the Albanian government. These warships were shot at, but they somehow escaped the onslaught. After this incident, on October 22nd 1946, three British warships which consisted of two cruisers and two destroyers were struck by mines and were damaged very heavily while leaving the port of Corfu while proceeding through a channel in the North Corfu Strait. One of the destroyers by the name of Saumeraz struck a mine and was heavily injured while another destroyer, the Volage which went to assist the former destroyer struck other mine while it was towing the destroyed destroyer. The damage also resulted in a lot of casualties resulting in the death of Forty five British officers and sailors and forty two others were wounded.[1] After the explosions, Great Britain sent a note to the Albanian government expressing its intention of sweeping the Corfu channel.

The Albanian government replied after some time in which it declared that it wouldn’t allow the operation to o forward unless it took place outside the Albanian waters. The Britain government then informed Albania on November 10th of its intention of sweeping the channel on November 12th to which Albania replied on the November 11th with a disapproval and protested against the ‘unilateral decision taken by his Majesty’s government’.[2] The Albanian government put forward the argument that it did not have any problem with the sweeping of the channel for investigation purposes but before doing that, it considered it indispensable to decide as to what area should be deemed to constitute this channel and also proposed the establishment of a mixed commission for the purpose.[3] It also said that any investigation conducted in the channel without the consent of the Albanian government would result in deliberate violation of the Albanian territory and sovereignty since the foreign ships have no reason to sail inside the Albanian waters without its due permission. After these set of events, ‘Operation Retail’ took place on November 12th and 13th.


It was claimed by the British government that the mines which resulted in the explosions and the subsequent destruction of the ships were laid between May 15th, 1946 and October 22nd, 1946 with the approval of the government of Albania. Thus, it was contended by the Britain that it was the responsibility of the Albanian government to compensate for the loss of ships and life which took place in the explosions. The second issue in the special agreement dealt with ‘Operation Retail’ carried out by Britain in the Albanian sea without its consent.[4] The operation was a minesweeping operation carried by Britain after the accident which took place in the Corfu channel. It was contended by Albania that the operation was not legitimate as it happened without Albania’s consent. Britain, in its defence put forward that it had the right of passing through the channel and carrying the activities which it did in there taking the defence of ‘innocent passage’

According to this, Britain had the right of passing through the Corfu channel as according to the rules of the International law, it had the right to innocent passage through the north Corfu channel as it is considered part of international highways and also does not need prior approval of the territorial state. Albania does not dispute that the Corfu channel is a strait in the geographical sense but the country denies that it comes under the broad category of the international highways through which ships and destroyers of other countries have the permission to pass without its due permission.


The International Court of Justice took cognizance of the matter and started investigating by analysing the geographical situation of the channel which was connecting the two parts of the high seas and was also being used for international navigation. The court came to the conclusion that the Corfu channel belongs to the category of international highways and that ships of other countries possess the right to innocent passage through the channel. It also said that the nations don’t have to rely on the permission or consent of the territorial nation in order to pass through the channel. The UK government claimed that the Albanian government didn’t inform the British destroyers of the minefields laid in the channel nor warned of the ships of the approaching danger.

The principle of state responsibility says that Armenia had the responsibility to warn the ships of the impending danger especially to those who were approaching the danger zone. But, the Albanian authorities didn’t take any steps to prevent the event from happening. Thus, all these signs point to the guilt of the Armenian government who couldn’t act on the right time much to the dismay of Great Britain.[5] Albania’s obligation to inform shipping of the existence of underwater mines depends on the nation having knowledge of the fact in sufficient time before October 22nd.


The ICJ in its judgement decided and came to the conclusion that Albania is responsible for the explosions which occurred on October 22nd resulting in the damage to the two destroyers of Great Britain. It also held the Albanian government responsible for the damage caused to the human life due to the activation of the underwater mines which Albania was aware of. The court ordered Albania to pay compensation Great Britain for all the damage caused to them.

The second question before the court was whether Great Britain violated the sovereignty of Albania by carrying out ‘Operation Retail’ in the Albanian waters without the permission of the Albanian government. The court assessed the manner in which the UK warships had been destroyed on May 15th. After taking into consideration the arguments presented by both the nations, the court came to the conclusion that UK had an innocent passage in the channel and that it did not violate the sovereignty of Albania on October 22nd. Even though the UK government admits that the minesweeping operations carried by the Navy in the Albanian waters was carried out without the consent of Albania and the International Mine Clearance Organization, the act was an act of desperation and urgent urgency which had to be carried out without anyone’s prior consent.

The court in its final decision gave the decision in the favour of UK on the first question and held Albania responsible for the destruction caused to the British ships on October 22nd and ordered it to compensate UK for the damage caused.

The Court then considers Albania’s obligations in light of this knowledge: The obligations resulting for Albania from this knowledge are not disputed between the Parties. Counsel for the Albanian Government expressly recognized that [translation] “if Albania had been informed of the operation before the incidents of October 22nd, and in time to warn the British vessels and shipping in general of the existence of mines in the Corfu Channel, her responsibility would be involved.. . .". The obligations incumbent upon the Albanian authorities consisted in notifying, for the benefit of shipping in general, the existence of a minefield in Albanian territorial waters and in warning the approaching British warships of the imminent danger to which the minefield exposed them. Such obligations are based, not on the Hague Convention of 1907, No. VTII, which is applicable in time of war, but on certain general and well-recognized principles, namely: elementary considerations of humanity, even more exacting in peace than in war ; the principle of the freedom of maritime communication ; and every State's obligation not to allow knowingly its territory to be used for acts contrary to the rights of other States. In fact, Albania neither notified the existence of the minefield, nor warned the British warships of the danger they were approaching.[6]

The observation made by the court in coming to the conclusion was that Albania’s attitude, it’s intention of having a close watch on the territorial waters, its protest against the passing of British ships and that mine-laying would have been visible to the Albanian government led the court to believe that the laying of the mines and the subsequent damage caused to the British warships couldn’t  have been possible without Albania’s knowledge. The court held by 11 voted to 5 that Albania is responsible.

On the second question, ICJ held that UK had an innocent passage in the Corfu channel. UK did not violate the sovereignty of Albania on 22nd October but it did violate the sovereignty of on November 12th and 13th when it carried out the minesweeping operations in the Albanian waters without its due consent.


The Corfu channel case is a landmark case in the International law and the Law of Sea. It has had a long lasting impact on the jurisprudence of the courts all over the world. Mohammed Bedjaoui, an Algerian Jurist wrote:

Armed only with the jurisprudence of its predecessor, this new International Court would successfully establish for the future a whole range of procedural rules, as well as a foundation in a great number of areas, while fortuitously strengthening some legal principles for the good of a world that was about to find itself in a period of strong ideological rivalry. It would even boldly develop international law, notably within the area of environmental protection”.[7]

The case is known as ‘a thoroughly modern decision’ and also a ‘a landmark for international law’. The case also had an impact on the international environmental law. Some scholars including Malgosia Fitzmaurice have remarked on the impact caused by the Corfu channel case on the environmental jurisprudence. The court in this case laid down the principle that every state is under the obligation to not knowingly allow its territory to be used to commit acts against the rights of any other state which implies that Albania was under the responsibility to warn other states that its territorial water was mined. [8]




[1] , at accessed February 5)

[2] , at accessed February 5)

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Supra 1.

[6] Ibid

[7] , at accessed February 7)

[8] ibid

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