Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Corfu Channel Incident (1946)

Incident marking the escalation of a dispute between Albania and the United Kingdom over rights of passage through the channel that separates the Greek island of Corfu from the Albanian mainland when two British warships struck sea mines in October 1946. Great Britain filed a suit before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the court's 1949 ruling initiated its activities in mediating international disputes. The Corfu Channel Incident and its aftermath soured relations between Albania and the United Kingdom, which remained strained during the entirety of the Cold War.

While the British government demanded the right of passage for its ships through the channel, Albania claimed sovereignty over the waters and fired artillery rounds at two passing British warships on 15 May 1946. After a strongly worded diplomatic exchange, the United Kingdom again sent four warships through the channel to underscore its position. On 22 October 1946, the British destroyers Saumarez and Volage struck sea mines in the channel. Forty-four crew members died, and both ships were badly damaged.

The British government blamed Albania for the incident, but a United Nations (UN) Security Council draft resolution assigning responsibility to the Albanians for the incident was vetoed by the Soviets on 25 March 1947. The UN subsequently recommended that the dispute be solved by the International Court of Justice (SC Resolution 22 of 9 May 1947). On 22 May 1947, the ICJ was asked to determine whether Albania was responsible for the incident and if its sovereignty had been violated.

In the court's verdict of 9 April 1949, its first ever, the judges saw no sufficient evidence for the British claim that Albania was responsible for the laying of the mines but held that because of its intensive monitoring of the channel, Albania must have been aware of the minefield and had a legal obligation to warn passing ships. Furthermore, the court ruled that the British ships had exercised their right of innocent passage, while a subsequent British mine-clearing action on 13 November 1946 (Operation retail) required Albanian permission and was therefore illegal.

In a second and related decision on 15 December 1949, the ICJ assessed compensation to be paid by Albania to the United Kingdom in the amount of £844,000 sterling. Albania refused to comply with the ruling, however. The British government then attempted to satisfy its claims by impounding Albanian gold that had been looted by Germany during World War II. It subsequently blocked payment to Albania via the Tripartite Gold Commission (TGC) that was to redistribute the stolen gold reserves of several nations. A settlement of the Corfu Channel Incident was not reached until 1992, when Albania agreed to pay US$2 million in compensation. After other claims had also been satisfied, the TGC finally returned the World War II–era confiscated gold to Albania in 1996.

Jan Martin Lemnitzer


Further Reading
Leggett, Eric. The Corfu Incident. London: Seeley 1974.
 

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