10 Landmark Cases of International Law

29 Mar 2023  Read 28026 Views

International Law includes rules, treaties & agreements binding upon their nation. The foremost reason why countries sign treaties is that they believe it will be beneficial for their citizens. International law governs several global matters like the environment, world trade, wars, diplomatic relations, etc. So, dealing with the landmark case laws based on such matters is important for your better understanding. Hence, we have wrapped up detailed versions of ten landmark cases on international law. Let's get started.

Landmark Cases on International Law

1. Corfu Channel case 

(Heard before the International Court of Justice between 1947 and 1949)

Subject matter: state liability for maritime damages, as well as the theory of innocent passage


  • This lawsuit considered Albanian culpability for mining the Corfu waterway and the following damage to two British naval vessels caused by the hitting mines. 

  • In October 1946, two British warships collided with mines in Albanian seas. Both destroyers were severely damaged, 45 British officers and men were killed, and 42 others were injured.

  • Following that, in November 1946, the British Navy searched for mines in Albanian seas in the Corfu Channel without Albanian approval. The United Kingdom applied to initiate proceedings against the People's Republic of Albania, seeking a determination that the Albanian Government was globally accountable for the incident's repercussions and must make reparation. 

  • Albania, for its part, has filed a counter-claim against the UK for violating Albanian territorial seas. The British government alleged that the minefield that caused the explosions was laid by or with the agreement or knowledge of the Albanian government between May 15th and October 22nd, 1946. 

  • As a result, Albania had to reimburse the UK government for the blasts and deaths. The second question in the Special Agreement, along with the issue of  passage of the British warships on October 22nd, 1946, relates to the actions of the British Navy in Albanian waters on 12th and 13th November, 1946, when the UK government conducted a minesweeping operation called 'Operation Retail' without the approval of Albania.


1) Should the North Corfu Channel be included in international highways?

2) Is Albania liable under the international law regime for the events that happened in Albanian seas on October 22, 1946, as well as the damage and loss of life that came from them, and is there any need to pay compensation?

Holding of the court

The majority opinion held that Albania was liable for the blasts for the resultant devastation and loss of human life that the United Kingdom had experienced. Albania was made liable by majority as it had continuous surveillance over the Channel and, therefore, ought to have known about Corfu Channel. 

2. SS Lotus case  

Subject matter: lays down the foundation of international law, says that sovereign states may act in any way they wish so long as they do not contravene an explicit prohibition


  • The Lotus case is about a criminal trial resulting from a crash between the S.S. Lotus, a French steamship, and the S.S. Bozkourt, a Turkish vessel, on August 2, 1926, in an area just north of Mytilene (Greece). 

  • Eight Turkish people on the boat the Bozkourt drowned because of the catastrophe when the Lotus ripped the vessel apart. 


The question was whether Turkey had the authority to trial Monsieur Demons, the French officer on duty at the time of the crash. France asserted that because the incident happened on the high seas, the nation whose flag the vessel flew should have the  exclusive jurisdiction over the case.

Holding of the court

France presented case law to demonstrate at least state practice supporting its argument. Those situations, however, included ships flying the same state's flag. As a result, the Court rejected France's claim by a narrow majority, declaring that there was no norm in international law to that effect.

The first principle that emerges of the Lotus Case is that a nation cannot exert its jurisdiction outside its borders unless authorised by an international treaty or customary law.

The second important principle that emerges out of the Lotus Case is that a Nation may exert its jurisdiction in any subject inside its territory, even if no express rule of international law allows it to do so. Governments have broad latitude in these cases, which is only restricted by the prohibitive standards of international law.


To know more about such international topics, enrol on our course of International Law 

3. Anglo-Norway Fisheries case

Subject: Elements of international custom


Norwegian decree of 1935, which claimed territorial waters of more than 4 nautical miles, which was contested by UK.. The point from which the territorial waters was to be determined thus became an important factor, and the ICJ gave judicial recognition to Norway (which is an archipelagic State under the UNCLOS, as it is a collection of islands). The islands are connected to the mainland, and Norway employed straight baseline, wherein the outermost point of the archipelagic islands was taken and a straight line was drawn to the mainland, thus including a good chunk of the sea would fall within Norway’s territorial waters, which disturbed UK’s fishing rights in the same waters. UK argued that the normal method for calculation is as is provided under UNCLOS Article 5, which States “the normal baseline for measuring the breadth of the territorial sea is the low-water line along the coast as marked on large-scale charts officially recognized by the coastal State.” 


When both parties placed the dispute before the ICJ, the issue which arose was whether the Norwegian decree of 1935 was in conformity with the then existing customary international law

Holding of the court:

The Court observed that the historic title that Norway had over the waters contributed to treating them as an exception in the method chosen for determining their baseline. The court thus held that in exceptional circumstances like the Anglo-Norway fisheries case, a State may be justified in moving away from the normal baseline rule to determine its territorial waters, which is also heeded to in Article 7 of the 1982 UNCLOS, pertaining to straight baselines.

4. Hungary vs Slovakia, Gabjikovo Nagymaros Project Case

Subject matter: Termination/suspension of treaties 


In 1977, Hungary and Czechoslovakia signed a Treaty for the construction of dams along the Danube River that bordered both nations (‘1977 Bilateral Treaty’). The construction work was to be undertaken by the two governments as a joint operation. There were provisions for which State was to operate on which part of the project, but there was no scope for unilateral engagement on the project by only one State. If investments were to be made in establishing the hydroelectric dam, both the States had to contribute. 

Hungary stopped working on the project in 1989, and negotiations could not resolve the matter, which led to Hungary abandoning its side of the treaty obligations. During negotiations, the Hungary government paid no attention to the request made by the Czechoslovakia government, and the latter started investigating alternative solutions. One of the solutions entailed a unilateral diversion of the Danube by Czechoslovakia on its territory (plan ‘Variant C’). In 1991, Czechoslovakia started the unilateral hydroelectric dam construction on its side. A bypass canal was dug, and then the water from the river was diverted into the bypass canal. 


Hungary brought its case before the ICJ and based its action on the fact that the damming of the river had been agreed to only on the ground of a joint operation and sharing of benefits associated with the project, to which Czechoslovakia had unlawfully unilaterally assumed control of a shared resource. It claimed that Czechoslovakia, which put into operation plan ‘Variant C’ after the project was halted, was a material breach of the 1977 Bilateral Treaty.

Hungary claimed that suspending the 1977 Bilateral Treaty and abandoning its side of the treaty obligation conformed with the well-established customary international law rules concerning termination of international treaties. These rules were squarely brought into effect in Articles 60, 61 and 62 of VCLT. 

Arguments by Hungary: There was a three-prong argument advanced by the Hungarian government in support of the suspension and abandoning of its treaty obligations:

Article 60: Termination or suspension of the operation of a treaty as a consequence of its breach  

Article 60(3) states: 

“A material breach of a treaty, for the purposes of this article, consists in:

(a) A repudiation of the treaty not sanctioned by the present Convention; or 

(b) The violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.”

Holding of the court 

The Court had to make two sets of facts on the part of the Czechoslovakia government: One, the diversion of water of river Danube into the bypass canal on this side of the Czechoslovakia state. Two, construction of the works in general, which would have led to putting into application Variant C. By distinguishing these two sets of apps on the part of the Czechoslovakia state, ICJ observed that the Czechoslovakia government violated the 1977 Treaty only as far as the first act is concerned. On the second act of construction, which led to putting into practice Variant C, ICJ observed that there was no violation on the basis of the evidence produced.  

5. Iran US Hostage Crisis 

Subject matter: diplomatic immunity and state responsibility 


For 444 days, more than 60 Americans feared for their lives during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This was a siege lasting from November 1979 to January 1981, which began when angry Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran and took hostages. The United States filed an application with the Court following Iranian radicals' seizure of its Embassy in Tehran on  4th November, 1979, and the abduction and detention of its diplomatic and consular employees as hostages.


Was the Iranian government in any way responsible for the actions of the militias, and was it complacent to the extent of the responsibility and obligations it owed as the host state to the diplomats?

Holding of the court 

On the United States request for provisional measures, the Court held that there had been no more fundamental prerequisite for State relations than the immunity of diplomats and the embassies, and it suggested provisional measures to ensure the immediate return of the Embassy premises to the United States and the release of the hostages.

In its judgement on the  Court,t , remarked that Iran had breached and was still contravening obligations owed by it to the United States under the existing conventions between the 2 nations and rules of general international law, that the violation engaged its obligation, and that the Iranian state was obligated to secure the immediate release. The Court emphasised the fundamental relevance of international law rules regulating diplomatic and consular interactionsIt stated that, while the actions of militants could not be attributed directly to the Iranian Nation, due to a lack of sufficient information, the Iranian State had done nothing to prevent the attack, stop it before it was completed, or compel the insurgents to disengage from the facilities and release the hostages. 

The Court recognised that, after November 4, 1979, some organs of the Iranian State supported and determined to perpetuate the acts complained of, transforming them into acts of the Iranian State... Despite the absence of the Iranian Government, the Court issued its decision, rejecting the grounds advanced by Tehran in two communications addressed to the Court in support of its contention that the Court could not and should not hear the matter. Since the matter was removed from the List upon cessation by Order of 12 May 1981, the Court was not called upon to give a further decision on the restitution for the harm caused to the Government ofUnited States 

6. Luther v. Sagor Case (KB, CoA 1921)

Subject matter — Conclusiveness of Statements by Executive — Recognition of Foreign Governments and States.


Luther was a British Citizen who used to run a Timber industry in Soviet Russia. On 1917 the Russian Government nationalized his factory and thereafter Mr Luther left Russia and went to the UK. In 1920 Mr. Sagor came to an agreement with Russian Nationalized business company to buy some timber, the company sent timbers accordingly but when timers reached in UK Mr. Luther claimed that those timbers were his timbers, he pointed that as UK never recognized the government of Russia, as well as Russia, wrongfully took over his factory. Therefore, the civilized court of UK cannot validate the rule of Russian law.


The question of whether Russia is recognised by Britain was brought before the King's Bench Division. And how lawful or genuine was the nationalisation?

Holding of the court:

The court held that the recognition of the state was retroactive in effect, thus the change of govt and the delay in recognising the new govt would have no impact before the English courts. t was held that the British Government recognized the Government of Russia and the retrospective effect will be applicable for that recognition. So the Nationalization by Russia was legal and valid. Kings Bench Division considered the following matters: That the British Government provided de-facto recognition of the present government of Russia. That the recognition of Russia had retrospective effect, therefore, the time in question is not a concern. That, in the matter of effective relationships and in the question of law De-facto or De-jury recognition does not create any real difference

7. Nuclear Tests Case – 1974 ICJ 

Subject matter: Unilateral declarations as a source of International-law


On May 9, 1973, Australia and New Zealand separately started actions against France about nuclear weapons tests that France planned to conduct in the South Pacific region's atmosphere. France indicated that it believed the Court lacked jurisdiction and did not present at the public sessions or file any pleas.

At the request of the tow pacific nations, the Court issued two orders on June 22, 1973, indicating, among other things, that France should refrain from conducting nuclear tests that would result in radioactive fallout over Australian or New Zealand territory while the case was being heard. By two Judgments given on 20 December 1974, the Court determined that the Applications of New Zealand and Australia no longer had any aim and that it was thus not required to rule on them. In doing so, the Court relied on the finding that Australia and New Zealand's goal had been met, because France had indicated in different public declarations its determination to conduct no additional atmospheric nuclear tests following the end of the 1974 series.


May a unilateral proclamation have the effect of generating legal obligations?

Holding of the court:

Declaration made through unilateral acts may have the effect of creating legal obligations.

French Minister has made a statement before the UNGA. Prez and PM had also made public statements. The defence minister also made a statement on TV.

ICJ took the first 3 statements together, to mean that France had given an undertaking, not only to Australia and New Zealand, to not conduct an atmospheric nuclear test.

The statements were made publicly, which applies to the international community. It was identified as state policy. It was not made in response specifically to Australia and New Zealand.

8. Asylum Case- between Columbia and Peru

Subject matter: Customs as a source of International-law


The dispute was regarding diplomatic asylum to a Peruvian national accused of actions intended to topple the Peruvian government. Columbia, where he had sought asylum, refused to hand him over to Peru for trial. This case is an example of regional custom. Columbia argued that the Latin American countries had adopted a convention whereby asylum could be provided to such people and that this was regional custom. Peru said this state practice was however inconsistent. 

Peru was the receiving state (read as who sent ambassador), Colombia was the sending state. The sovereign rights of the receiving state can be limited in foreign offices. - principle of inviolability of foreign embassies

Peru wanted colombia to hand him over -  matter when to ICJ. Peru said that there was a state practise in a latin america, that any person taking refuge in a foreign embassy will be allowed to move to the respective sending country. Both countries were signatories to the Montevido (Havana) convention which talked of political asylum - but Peru had not ratified it.


Can the Colombian government provide refuge in accordance with local custom?

Holding of the court 

The ICJ made the following observations- the states falling within the concerned region must have observed the practice in a constant and uniform way; but on the facts of the case, it is not possible to conclude that the practice was constant (the court does not use the word consistent); further, there is no uniformity in the sense that not all states in the region has ratified the convention.

9. Arrest Warrant of 11 April 2000 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium)

Subject matter: Diplomatic Immunity 


Belgium had enacted 2 legislations (criminal statutes) – one before the present case arose (1993) and one after (to address the negative fallout of the case by broadening the exercise of criminal jurisdiction by Belgian courts – prescriptive as well as enforcement jurisdiction)

Around the 2000s, a Belgian investigating judge issued an international arrest warrant in absentia for a Mr. Yerodia, a national of the DRC. He was charged with war crimes amounting to grave breaches of the Genocide Convention of 1949, and crimes against humanity. Belgium claimed that Mr. Yerodia was responsible for mass killings because his speeches around 1998 incited racial hatred, leading to mass murders and lynching by some groups. When the arrest warrant was issued, he was not in Belgium, and thus not under the territorial control of Belgian authorities. The arrest warrant was sent to the DRC government and to Interpol. Interpol in turn circulated the warrant to other states.

Under the former Belgian law, Belgium had criminal jurisdiction over offences irrespective of where they had been committed – ‘sweeping jurisdiction’. Alleged offenders could be booked under the Belgian law no matter where in the world they were. The law did not specify how they were to be brought back to Belgian. But, one of the procedures followed here was that copies of the arrest warrant were transmitted to DRC and Interpol.


Did Belgium break customary international law standards governing an incumbent Foreign Minister's full inviolability and immunity from criminal prosecution when it issued and publicly distributed the arrest warrant?

If so, did it breach the concept of sovereign equality among states?

Does this claimed illegality bar the States who got the warrant from using it?

Should the Court seek reparations?

Should Belgium recall and rescind its arrest warrant?

Holding of the court:

Diplomatic Immunity: The accused was a Minister for Foreign Affairs. (discussed later while dealing with diplomatic immunity). This case did not directly deal with the exercise of protective principle as basis for criminal jurisdiction and universal jurisdiction. DRC argued that Mr. Yerodia was entitled for immunity, which was accepted by the ICJ. It held that the immunity claim was legitimate, and did not examine the question of Belgian jurisdiction. 

3 judges dissented (Rosalyn Higgins, Kooijmans and Buergenthal, JJ) and made some observations with respect to the nature of the Belgian criminal statutes in 

10. The Schooner Exchange v M’Fadden (1812)

Subject matter: Absolute state immunity 


The case involved an admiralty suit (action in rem*) brought by the claimant before an American court. The suit was related to a naval vessel that entered Philadelphia for repair purposes. The claimant (who sought possession of the vessel) argued that they owned the vessel but that the French government had seized the vessel by means of a Napoleonic decree. The Attorney General filed a suggestion that the SC should refuse jurisdiction on the ground of SI since it was a French naval vessel.


Are national ships of war considered exempted if the power of the friendly jurisdiction whose port the ship enters consents?

Holding of the court:

Supreme Court – Courts of one country do not investigate into the law of other countries by the application of which properties are acquired. So, the court applied the doctrine of SI and decided in favour of the French government. The principle of par in parem non habet imperium was invoked. The court combined two doctrines - that the absolute jurisdiction of the territorial sovereign by assuming the latter’s implied consent to immunity from its courts’ jurisdiction. The distinction between commercial and administrative acts of the state was not made in this case.

Here are some more blogs related to landmark cases, you can click on the link and know more about that-

1. Top 10 Landmark Cases of Constitution
2. Top 10 Landmark Supreme Court Judgments of 2022
3. Famous Landmark Cases of India

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 275 Post(s)

She is a Legal Content Manager at Finology Legal! With a Masters in Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), a BBA.LL.B from ITM University, and patent analyst training from IIPTA, she truly specializes in her field. Her passion for IPR and Criminal laws is evident from her advanced certification in Forensic Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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