The International Court of Justice is one of the major organs of the United Nations. It sits at the Hague, and is empowered to resolve disputes between states and provide advisory opinions on international law.

The ICJ does not hear civil or criminal disputes between individuals; it is solely an inter-governmental court. Civil or criminal cases may be moved from domestic courts to the ICJ, but only if a treaty or other obligation between states is implied, and only if one of the governments decides to press the case.

It was formed in 1945 as part of the UN, but was not in fact the first "world court"--the League of Nations also had a court, the Permanent Court of International Justice, which sat from 1922 to 1946 and issued a number of influential opinions.


The ICJ has fifteen judges, who are elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council in separate votes. Under the ICJ Statute, the seats are generally supposed to be divided so that all major legal systems of the world are represented. In practice, each permanent member of the Security Council gets one seat on the court, and the remaining seats are distributed by a fairly constant regional formula. As of 2006 there are:

Five seats are open for election every three years, so each judge has a term of office of nine years.

To add to the diversity of the ICJ, if a state comes before the ICJ and there are no sitting judges from that state, the state may designate a judge to sit "ad hoc."

Usually, the Court sits as a full bench of 15 judges. In some cases, it may sit in a "chamber" of 3 or more judges as agreed to by the parties. In any event, decisions of the Court are reached by a majority vote, with the President of the Court breaking any tie.

Jurisdiction in contentious cases

The ICJ may hear any contentious case between states with the express or implied consent of each party. Express consent is often provided in treaties (e.g. in a clause that says "all disputes under this treaty shall be submitted to the ICJ"). A state can also provide implied consent, either by bringing suit at the ICJ or by appearing before the ICJ in response to a suit (unless it explicitly states that the appearance is solely to contest jurisdiction).

States may also provide advance written consent to "compulsory jurisdiction" in any case involving:

  1. the interpretation of a treaty
  2. any question of international law
  3. the existence of any fact which, if established, would constitute a breach of an international obligation
  4. the nature or extent of the reparation to be made for the breach of an international obligation

Only one-third of the UN member states currently have such a consent letter on file. The US was one of the first states to provide one, but withdrew it in 1985 after the ICJ's decision in the Nicaragua case. The US was afraid that submitting to ICJ jurisdiction would threaten its national security in the future: it wanted the Security Council to decide all matters of self-defense. Another justification was that compulsory jurisdiction was riddled with holes--the US had never been able to bring a case before the ICJ under compulsory jurisdiction, despite trying on several occasions. (The main stumbling block in practice is that most countries exclude from compulsory jurisdiction any case which could be brought in their domestic courts. In most countries, this includes any suit against the government regardless of plaintiff.)

The ICJ usually provides remedies in the form of court orders directing certain conduct, such as the cessation of hostilities or the payment of reparations. Final decisions of the ICJ are "binding upon the parties," which means that a state is officially in breach of international law if it fails to comply. Usually, the final settlement of a case is by agreement between the parties. However, if a delinquent state fails to comply with a judgment at all, it may have its foreign assets seized or be subject to other punishment from other states--not including the use of force, unless the Security Council approves it.

The ICJ may also order provisional measures to protect any party in interest from future harm. Provisional measures are only ordered in cases of urgency, and only where irreparable injury is likely to result. For instance, in late 1979, the ICJ ordered Iran to allow U.S. diplomatic hostages to leave the embassy in Tehran while a case was pending between the two countries regarding the seizure of the embassy. However, provisional measures are much harder to enforce. The language of the ICJ statute is a big part of the problem: it only grants the Court "the power to indicate... any provisional measures which ought to be taken." Many states therefore refuse to give provisional measures any binding effect.

Major decisions of the Court include:

Jurisdiction to give advisory opinions

Any state may request an advisory opinion from the ICJ regarding "any legal question." This right is also extended to the major organs authorized by the UN Charter, including the General Assembly, Security Council, UNESCO, WHO and IMCO.

However, an international organization may only request legal answers within its own scope of activities. The ICJ established this rule when it declined to give an advisory opinion to the WHO regarding the legality of using nuclear weapons--apparently a matter not related to the promotion of world health.

The advisory opinions of the Court include:

  • Conditions of admission of a state to membership in the United Nations (1947)
  • International status of South-West Africa (1949)
  • Connections of Spain and Morocco to Western Sahara (1975) (noded)
  • Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons (1994)
  • Legal consequences of the West Bank wall (2003)

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