This is part of an ongoing series mapping the current landscape of space law - specifically, the application of modern Law of the Sea to space. The Corfu Channel case was defining in the regime for international straits and could potentially be relevant for regulation of space corridors like Lagrange points and gravitationally stable orbits.
May 15, 1946
2 British cruisers: Ah a beautiful day to gather intelligence in the Corfu Channel, a strait between the island of Corfu and the coasts of Albania and Greece
Albanian shore battery: eyy not on my turf brit go back to eating tea and crumpets these parts ain’t MADE for you [fires]
UK: Excuse me that is not what your mom said last night! also you must know that by the 1920 Treaty of Peace we have the right of innocent passage through this international strait
Albania: innocent my ass those are literally warships doing war stuff. you better ask for permission before you sail the Corfu twice or [cracks knuckles]
UK: oh you want some?!?!??! i’ll give it to ye!!!
British ships hit mines in the Corfu channel
UK: oho whichever sorry wanker left these is gonna be SORRY
Horde of British warships: [enters the Corfu channel to sweep for mines]
[definitely not covered by innocent passage]
Albania: [reaches under bed and pulls out sock full of quarters]
UN Security Council: Perhaps you fine folks might benefit from referring this dispute to the International Court of Justice 🥺👉👈
1948: The Corfu Channel Case
ICJ: Ok so first things first both of you are guilty of intimidating
ICJ: the first two cruisers didn’t violate innocent passage cuz the guns were pointed down but the horde of warships did (why would they not?)
ICJ: but Albania
ICJ: the channel was swept for mines in 1944 so the ones the Brits found were clearly put there by you
ICJ: please give Britain your lunch money
Albania: but the evidence from the minesweeping operation is from the Brits
Albania: Isn’t that obviously a biased operation
Albania: I am not giving you my lunch money
1958 Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone
- Still didn’t define the width of the territorial sea
- Coastal states wanted larger bounds of control over straits
- Maritime powers wanted special transit rights through straits
1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea
- Defines “strait” in a legal and economic sense
- Establishes right of transit passage for ships and aircraft through straits
Back to Space Things
Coastal states have jurisdiction over their territorial sea, the strip of ocean extending up to 12 nautical miles from the coast. However, some sections of the ocean are too important for any one country to have sole sovereignty over, straits used for international navigation. This describes thin strips of water that experience a large anula volume of ships. Transit passage describes everyone’s right to “continuous and expeditious passage” through an internationally critical strait that may lie within the territorial sea of another state.
In a world where the solar system is settled with hundreds of interplanetary human colonies, we can imagine that the territorial sea might have an analogue in the orbits of the inhabited celestial bodies. Instead of 12 nautical miles, we might say the boundary exists at a distance at which objects experience 0.1% of the surface-level gravitational force. Straits might find an analogue in Lagrange points or certain paths that use existing gravitational wells to minimize fuel costs. Although these areas would be closer to some sovereign territories than others, they would be essential to interplanetary trade and transit, and so should be governed by an international regime.