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In 1923, the situation in international law (particularly as regards international treaty making) was
struggling to come to terms with the concept of state sovereignty. The situation in this case regards the
Treaty of Versailles (1919) and German sovereignty. The British ship, the S.S. Wimbledon (owned by a
French company) attempted to carry munitions and supplies to Poland as they fought a war with Russia.
Germany refused the boat access through the Kiel Canal. The canal is in German territory. Germany was
a neutral party in the war and it did not wish to support either side. The application was made to the
Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) to gain damages for lost time and money in the transport
of the goods.
The applicants submitted the request before the PCIJ on the grounds of wrongfulness by German
authorities when they refused access to the ship. The Neutrality Orders issued by Germany, were defined
as inconsistant with Article 380 of the Treaty of Versailles. The Kiel Canal and its approaches shall be
maintained free and open to the vessels of commerce and war of all nations at peace with Germany on
terms of entire equality. The agent for Germany argued that Germany was sovereign over her own lands.
The Article should not compromise her sovereignty or her sovereign right to neutrality. Boats could be
refused access on many grounds, neutrality should be one.
Whether or not a state should only be bound by a treaty only while the treaty provides fruitful results (or
until circumstances fundamentally change)
The court ruled in favor of the applicants. Treaty making is an attribute of sovereignty, Germany (and all
states), although sovereign are without doubt bound to the treaties they sign.
The court interpreted Article 380 with respect for its plain terms. According to the majority, the article
clearly obligated Germany to allow free passage to all vessels, without distinction as to the nature of their
cargo or their destination, with an exception only for vessels belonging to nations at war with Germany.
The court continued:
The terms of article 380 are categorical and give rise to no doubt. It follows that the canal has
ceased to be an internal and national navigable waterway, the use of which by the vessels of states
other than the riparian state is left entirely to the discretion of that state, and that it has become an
international waterway.
From the inclusion of an exception for ships of belligerents with whom Germany may be at war, the court
inferred that the drafters of the Treaty had "clearly contemplated the possibility of a future war in which
Germany is involved." Therefore, the court concluded that if free access to the Kiel Canal could be
modified in the event of German neutrality, "the Treaty would not have failed to say so. It has not said so
and this omission was no doubt intentional."
"The Court declines to see in the conclusion of any treaty by which a State undertakes to perform or
refrain from performing a particular act an abandonment of its sovereignty. No doubt any Convention
creating an obligation of this kind places a restriction upon the exercise of the sovereign rights of the
State, in the sense that it requires them to be exercised in a certain way. But the right to enter into
international engagements is an attribute of State sovereignty.
The majority concluded the German neutrality orders could not preempt the provisions of the Treaty of
Versailles. Because Article 380 explicitly authorized passage of the Wimbledon, allowing the ship to pass
"cannot be imputed to Germany as a failure to fulfill its duties as a neutral. If, therefore, the `Wimbledon',

making use of the permission granted it by Article 380, had passed through the Kiel Canal, Germany's
neutrality would have remained intact and irreproachable.