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The Bridge on the Strait of Messina: “Lowering” the Right of Innocent Passage?

  • Fabio Spadi

The Strait of Messina is a body of water in the Mediterranean Sea separating the island of Sicily to the west from mainland Italy to the east, linking the Lower Tyrrhenian Sea with the Ionian Sea. The strait is around 30 miles long and its width ranges from 13/4 miles (between Faro Point and the Rock of Scylla) to 10 miles (between Cape Alì and Cape Pellaro). At its northern end it reaches, at one point, a minimum depth of 70 metres.1

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1. For a detailed description Kennedy, R. H., “Brève étude géographique et hydrographique des détroits qui constituent des voies de passage internationales”, Conférence des Nations Unies sur le droit de la mer, 1 Documents préparatoires (1958), Doc. A/Conf.13/6, pp.136137.

2. Articles 34–36 of UNCLOS. On the “international” aspects of the Strait see Gestri, M., “Libertà di navigazione e prevenzione dell'inquinamento: Il caso dello Stretto di Messina”, LXIX Rivista di diritto internazionale (1986), pp.280306, in particular p.285.

3. Gestri, op. cit., p. 287; Treves, T., Il diritto del mare e l'Italia (Giuffrè Editore, Milano, 1995) pp.5455; de Yturriaga, J. A., Straits Used for International Navigation—A Spanish Perspective (Martinus Nijhoff, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1991) p.13. Alexander, L. M., “Exceptions to the Transit Passage Regime: Straits with Routes of ‘Similar Convenience’”, 18 Ocean Development and International Law (1987), pp.484486.

4. The idea of a bridge or system of bridges over the Strait seems to have been contemplated even by Emperor Charlemagne back in the IX Century. La Spina, L., “Il Ponte sullo Stretto lungo un'illusione”, La Stampa, 18 Sept. 1999, p.11.

5. 8 Gazzetta Ufficiale della Repubblica Italiana, 11 Jan. 1992.

6. The Law provided for the Company shares to be allotted as follows: 51% to the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI—Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale), 12.25% to the Italian State Railways (FS—Ferrovie dello Stato), 12.25% to the National Roads Authority (ANAS—Azienda Nazionale Autonoma delle Strade), 12.25% to Calabria's regional government, 12.25% to the Sicilian regional government.

7. For a detailed history of the Project, see the official website of the Stretto di Messina S.p.A., at <>.

8. d'Errico, E., “Ponte sullo Stretto, c'è il sì degli esperti”, Corriere della Sera, 27 11 2000, p.24. Pogliotti, G., “Rapporto degli advisers: il ponte sullo Stretto costerà 9–10 mld”, Il Sole 24 Ore, 13 Jan. 2001, p.10.

9. For all the technical details see <>.

10. Koskenniemi, M., “Case Concerning Passage through the Great Belt”, 27 Ocean Development and International Law (1996), pp.264265; for an earlier version in French see , Koskenniemi, “L'affaire du passage par le Grand-Belt”, XXXVIII Annuaire Français de Droit International (1992), pp.905947.

11. Koskenniemi, op. cit., pp.255–289. The ICJ, which refused to indicate provisional measures as requested by Finland—Passage Through the Great Belt (Finland v. Denmark), I.C.J. Rep. 1991, pp.12–21—never came to a decision on the merits as Denmark and Finland concluded a separate agreement which resolved the issue. I.C.J. Rep. 1992, pp.348–349.

12. Among others, the main relevant instrument of international law, peculiar to the Straits, was and still is the Treaty on the Redemption of the Sound Dues (Copenhagen, 14 March 1857). Text (in French, official language) in G. F. de Martens, 16 Nouveau recueil général des traités et autres actes relatifs aux rapports de droit international, 2nd Series (Dieterich, Gottingue, 1891), pp.345 ff. Similarly important were bilateral treaties concluded with the powers that had not participated in the Copenhagen multilateral convention. Counter-memorial submitted by the Government of the Kingdom of Denmark, para.661, available at <>. These treaties make the Danish Straits one of those international waterways subject to Article 35 UNCLOS: “Nothing in this Part affects: … (c) the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits”.

13. Koskenniemi, op. cit., p.281, supra n.12.

14. Paras.676–677, Counter-memorial submitted by the Government of the Kingdom of Denmark, supra n.12.

15. The Decree (8 May 1985) prohibited the passage of all ships over 50,000 tonnes transporting oil or other noxious substances, as defined by the treaties which currently bind Italy. 110 Gazzetta Ufficiale della Repubblica Italiana, 11 May 1985.

16. Jia, B. B., The Regime of Straits in International Law (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998), p.181. The note was addressed to the U.S.

17. The protest had been made in relation to an earlier Decree (see infra n.37) but was couched in terms so general as to be relevant for the later Decree as well. Roach, J. A. & Smith, R. W., Excessive Maritime Claims (Naval War College, Newport R.I., 1994), pp.197200; Treves, T., “Codification du droit international et pratique des états dans le droit de la mer”, 223 Recueil des Cours (1990), pp.134135.

18. Gestri, op. cit., pp.292–297; Cataldi, G., Il passaggio inoffensivo delle navi straniere attraverso il mare territoriale (Giuffrè Editore, Milano, 1990), pp.102103.

19. Law No. 1158 (supra, n.5) defined the creation of a permanent road and railway linkage between Sicily and the Mainland to be an infrastructure “of national interest”.

20. Technically speaking, the submerged or underground alternatives were considered feasible. Supra n.7.

21. The right of passage is valid erga omnes, for all nations to enjoy.

22. In the Great Belt case, Denmark underlined the necessity of the bridge for the efficiency of its economy, as opposed to the competitive edge of a few companies which Finland was trying to protect by claiming the illegality of the infrastructure. Finland intelligently argued that it was not asking Denmark to give up the project, but simply to modify the plan (increased height, an opening in the bridge etc.) or examine other alternatives (e.g., a tunnel).

23. On the significance of this point Lucchini, L. & Vælckel, M., Droit de la mer (Pédone, Paris, 1996), p.370.

24. Doc. NAV 35/Inf. 4, 10 Oct. 1988. Doc. MSC 57/INF.2, 10 Oct. 1988.

25. Contrary to transit passage for which (Article 41) “ … States bordering straits shall refer proposals to the competent international organization with a view to their adoption. The organization may adopt only such sea lanes and traffic separation schemes as may be agreed with the States bordering the straits, after which the States may designate, prescribe or substitute them”.

26. At the time there were two projects, one for a single span bridge (which subsequently prevailed) and the other for a double span bridge. The Italian Government also submitted (9 Feb. 1989) a further project for “a submerged bridge … at a uniform depth … of 30 m below sea level”. Doc. MSC 57/INF.2/Add.1. According to the Italian Shipping Register (RINA) the depth of the extrados of this structure (known as the Archimedes Bridge) would have allowed “a free navigation to ships of any tonnage”.

27. Doc. NAV/35/14, Report of the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation on its 35th Session, 2 Feb. 1989 (Navigational Aspects of a Bridge in the Strait of Messina), paras.3.7.1–3.7.4. The Sub-Committee also expressed its preference for a single-span bridge “since the obstruction caused by the central pier of a double-span bridge would pose a navigational hazard in the strong currents encountered in the Strait … and in strong winds”.

28. Doc. MSC 57/27, Report of the Maritime Safety Committee on its 57th Session, 2 May 1989 (Navigational Aspects of a Bridge in the Strait of Messina), paras.10.2.16–10.2.17.

29. “IMO Has 158 Member States”, IMO Briefing, 21 March 2000. However, at the time of the adoption of the Report of the Sub-Committee, the members were “only” 135. Many of the new entrants have resulted form the dissolution of previous States (USSR, Yugoslavia). Data available on <>.

30. Koskenniemi, op. cit., pp.268–269.

31. Kennedy, op. cit., p.137.

32. The references were the sustaining pylons. Information kindly provided to the author by the Capitaneria di porto of Reggio Calabria.

33. Supra n.29. Among the new members, many have a Mediterranean-Black Sea profile, thus are probably likely to use the Strait more frequently: Croatia (1992), Albania (1993), Bosnia & Herzegovina (1993), The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (1993), Georgia (1993), Slovenia (1993), Ukraine (1994).

34. Koskenniemi, op. cit., p.269.

35. Opinions in the Italian political spectrum and indeed within the Government are not unanimous. Baccaro, A., “Sì al Ponte di Messina. Mattioli e Wwf contro”, Corriere della Sera, 28 Nov. 2000, p.13; Giovannini, R., “Messina, un ponte da 10.800 miliardi”, La Stampa, 24 Jan. 2001, p.10; Rizzo, S., “Messina, 11 anni per il ponte”, Corriere della Sera, 24 Jan. 2001, p.19.

36. Available on <>. See also n.26 supra and Pogliotti, op. cit.

37. Giovanni, op. cit.; Rizzo, op. cit.

38. It is quite significant that the closure of the Strait to 50,000 tonne tankers and the temporary interdiction for 10,000 tonne tankers (Ministerial Decree, 27 March 1985; 76 Gazzetta Ufficiale della Repubblica Italiana, 29 March 1985) seemingly attracted only the U.S. protest. Treves, “Codification …”, op. cit., p.135.

* Doctor in Political Science—International Law, Scuola Superiore S. Anna, Pisa.

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