The Corfu Channel Case
(United Kingdom v. Albania)
1949 I.C.J. 4 (Apr. 9)

  • During the Greek Civil War, UK ships were off the coast gathering intelligence. The ships passed through the Corfu Channel, which separated the Greek Island of Corfu from the Albanian mainland.
    • The Corfu Channel was narrow, and ships that were in it were closer than 12 miles from the Albanian coast.
      • Historically, the waters less than 12 miles from a country's coast were considered to be a territorial water and under the sovereign control of the coastal country.
  • Albania fired on the UK ships. The UK protested the action.
    • UK claimed their ships were involved in an innocent passage.
    • Albania claimed that sending warships through the channel was meant to be intimidating and thus was not 'innocent'.
      • In order to count as an innocent passage under customary international law, the passage must not be intended to be threatening.
    • Albania argued that there is no reason to use the Corfu Channel just to get from Point A to Point B. It isn't convenient for that. The only possible reason to be there is to threaten Albania.
  • Albania mined the channel. The UK sent minesweepers and de-mined the channel.
  • The UN Security Council asked both parties to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice for adjudication.
  • The ICJ found that ships can use narrow channels for innocent passage, even if that meant they had to enter the 12 mile territorial waters of a coastal country.
    • The ICJ found that the UK did have a right to traverse the Channel
    • However, the ICJ reminded the UK that they could only use the Channel for innocent passage.
      • The Court wasn't ready to find that the UK was sending ships into the Channel to threaten Albania, but noted that there was evidence that's what they were doing.
    • The ICJ found that since the Channel could be used for innocent passage, Albania could not mine it without giving notice.
      • The Court also found that the UK couldn't sweep the Channel for mines, since minesweeping was outside of the definition of innocent passage.
  • This case was decided based on customary international law, as it occurred prior to the Convention on the Law of the Sea (1833 U.N.T.S. 3 (1982)), which would now be controlling.
    • See Articles 17-21 of the Convention for the rules of innocent passage.
    • See Article 39 of the Convention for the rules of transit passage.