The Corfu Channel Case (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland-Albania) originated from events that happened in the Corfu Strait on October 22, 1946, when two British warships collided with mines in Albanian waters, causing severe damage and loss of life. The United Kingdom initially approached the United Nations Security Council, which suggested that the two governments submit their differences to the Court in a Resolution dated April 9th, 1947. After Albania filed an objection to its admission, the United Kingdom applied, which was the subject of a judgement dated March 25th, 1948, in which the Court ruled that it had jurisdiction. On the same day, the two parties signed a Special Agreement requesting that the Court rule on the following issues. For our purposes, just one element of the first question – Is Albania to blame for the explosions? – is important.
Albania was found guilty on the first issue by a vote of 11 to 5 in the court’s decision. The following are the facts: Two British cruisers and two destroyers arrived from the south on October 22nd, 1946 and entered the North Corfu Strait. The passage they were travelling through, which was in the Albanian seas, was thought to be secure since it had been swept in 1944 and checked in 1945. Off the coast of Saranda, one of the destroyers, the Saumarez, collided with a mine and was severely damaged. The Volage, the second destroyer sent to her aid, hit another mine while towing her and was severely damaged. Forty-five British officers and sailors were killed, while another forty-two were injured.
In response to the first question, the court determined that the explosions were triggered in the first place by mines from the minefield found on November 13th. The fact that this minefield had been recently constructed is undeniable; the explosions occurred in a channel that had been previously swept and check-swept and could be considered safe. The nature of the damage indicates that it was caused by mines similar to those found on November 13th. Finally, the idea that the mines discovered on November 13th were placed after the October 22nd explosions is much too unlikely to be accepted. In these conditions, what legal basis does Albania have for its responsibility?
The Court does not believe it is necessary to take seriously the claim that Albania planted the mines: that claim was made solely on the basis of memory, with no supporting evidence, and could not be reconciled with the undeniable fact that there are only a few launches and motorboats on the entire Albanian littoral. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, claimed Albanian complicity, alleging that two Yugoslav vessels laid mines at Albania’s request or with her consent. This cooperation has not been proven, according to the court. An accusation of this magnitude against a state would require a level of confidence that has not been achieved here, and the provenance of the mines strewn throughout the Albanian territorial seas remains a mystery.
The UK also claimed that whoever was responsible for the mine-laying, it could not have happened without Albania’s knowledge. True, the sheer presence of mines in the Albanian seas does not imply prima facie guilt or shift the burden of evidence.
On the other hand, a state’s exclusive authority inside its borders may make it difficult to provide direct evidence of facts that would implicate its culpability in the event of an international law breach. In that case, the victim state must be permitted to use inferences of fact and circumstantial evidence more liberally; such indirect evidence must be given more weight when it is based on a sequence of facts that are connected and lead logically to a single conclusion.
Both evidence of the Albanian government’s attitude (its intention to keep a close watch on its territorial waters, its protest against the passage of the British fleet but not the laying of mines, and its failure to notify shipping of the presence of mines) and the fact that mine-laying would have been visible to a normal lookout on the Albanian coast led the Court to conclude that a mine-laying was carried out.
(The Court then considers whether Albania would have had enough time to warn ships of the mines’ presence, and concludes that, even if the mines had been laid at the last possible moment, on the night of October 21st-22nd, the Albanian authorities could still have issued a warning to ships approaching the danger zone.) Between the time the British ships were detected by a lookout post and the time of the first explosion, there was a two-hour gap. The Court concluded that the omission included international responsibility for the explosions, as well as the damage and loss of human life that they caused.)
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