No. of positions
Judge term length
Worldwide, 193 State Parties
The International Court of Justice (French: Cour internationale de justice; commonly referred to as the World Court or ICJ) is the primary judicial branch of the United Nations (UN). Seated in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, the court settles legal disputes submitted to it by states and provides advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by duly authorized international branches, agencies, and the UN General Assembly.
Established in 1945 by the UN Charter, the Court began work in 1946 as the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice. The Statute of the International Court of Justice, similar to that of its predecessor, is the main constitutional document constituting and regulating the Court.
The Court's workload covers a wide range of judicial activity. After the court ruled that the United States's covert war against Nicaragua was in violation of international law (Nicaragua v. United States), the United States withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction in 1986 to accept the court's jurisdiction only on a case-by-case basis. Chapter XIV of the United Nations Charter authorizes the UN Security Council to enforce Court rulings. However, such enforcement is subject to the veto power of the five permanent members of the Council, which the United States used in the Nicaragua case.
The ICJ is composed of fifteen judges elected to nine-year terms by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council from a list of people nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The election process is set out in Articles 4–19 of the ICJ statute. Elections are staggered, with five judges elected every three years to ensure continuity within the court. Should a judge die in office, the practice has generally been to elect a judge in a special election to complete the term.
No two judges may be nationals of the same country. According to Article 9, the membership of the Court is supposed to represent the "main forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems of the world". Essentially, that has meant common law, civil law and socialist law (now post-communist law).
There is an informal understanding that the seats will be distributed by geographic regions so that there are five seats for Western countries, three for African states (including one judge of francophone civil law, one of Anglophone common law and one Arab), two for Eastern European states, three for Asian states and two for Latin American and Caribbean states. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States) always have a judge on the Court, thereby occupying three of the Western seats, one of the Asian seats and one of the Eastern European seats. The exception was China, which did not have a judge on the Court from 1967 to 1985 because it did not put forward a candidate.
Article 6 of the Statute provides that all judges should be "elected regardless of their nationality among persons of high moral character" who are either qualified for the highest judicial office in their home states or known as lawyers with sufficient competence in international law. Judicial independence is dealt with specifically in Articles 16–18. Judges of the ICJ are not able to hold any other post or act as counsel. In practice, Members of the Court have their own interpretation of these rules and allow them to be involved in outside arbitration and hold professional posts as long as there is no conflict of interest. A judge can be dismissed only by a unanimous vote of the other members of the Court. Despite these provisions, the independence of ICJ judges has been questioned. For example, during the Nicaragua case, the United States issued a communiqué suggesting that it could not present sensitive material to the Court because of the presence of judges from Eastern bloc states.
Judges may deliver joint judgments or give their own separate opinions. Decisions and Advisory Opinions are by majority, and, in the event of an equal division, the President's vote becomes decisive, which occurred in the Legality of the Use by a State of Nuclear Weapons in Armed Conflict (Opinion requested by WHO),  ICJ Reports 66. Judges may also deliver separate dissenting opinions.
Ad hoc judges
Article 31 of the statute sets out a procedure whereby ad hoc judges sit on contentious cases before the Court. The system allows any party to a contentious case if it otherwise does not have one of that party's nationals sitting on the Court to select one additional person to sit as a judge on that case only. It is thus possible that as many as seventeen judges may sit on one case.
The system may seem strange when compared with domestic court processes, but its purpose is to encourage states to submit cases. For example, if a state knows that it will have a judicial officer who can participate in deliberation and offer other judges local knowledge and an understanding of the state's perspective, it may be more willing to submit to the jurisdiction of the court. Although this system does not sit well with the judicial nature of the body, it is usually of little practical consequence. Ad hoc judges usually (but not always) vote in favor of the state that appointed them and thus cancel each other out.
Generally, the Court sits as full bench, but in the last fifteen years, it has on occasion sat as a chamber. Articles 26–29 of the statute allow the Court to form smaller chambers, usually 3 or 5 judges, to hear cases. Two types of chambers are contemplated by Article 26: firstly, chambers for special categories of cases, and second, the formation of ad hoc chambers to hear particular disputes. In 1993, a special chamber was established, under Article 26(1) of the ICJ statute, to deal specifically with environmental matters (although it has never been used).
Ad hoc chambers are more frequently convened. For example, chambers were used to hear the Gulf of Maine Case (Canada/US). In that case, the parties made clear they would withdraw the case unless the Court appointed judges to the chamber acceptable to the parties. Judgments of chambers may either less authority than full Court judgments or diminish the proper interpretation of universal international law informed by a variety of cultural and legal perspectives. On the other hand, the use of chambers might encourage greater recourse to the court and thus enhance international dispute resolution.
As of 9 February 2015, the composition of the Court is as follows:
As stated in Article 93 of the UN Charter, all 193 UN members are automatically parties to the Court's statute. Non-UN members may also become parties to the Court's statute under the Article 93(2) procedure. For example, before becoming a UN member state, Switzerland used this procedure in 1948 to become a party, and Nauru became a party in 1988. Once a state is a party to the Court's statute, it is entitled to participate in cases before the Court. However, being a party to the statute does not automatically give the Court jurisdiction over disputes involving those parties. The issue of jurisdiction is considered in the two types of ICJ cases: contentious issues and advisory opinions.
In contentious cases (adversarial proceedings seeking to settle a dispute), the ICJ produces a binding ruling between states that agree to submit to the ruling of the court. Only states may be parties in contentious cases. Individuals, corporations, parts of a federal state, NGOs, UN organs and self-determination groups are excluded from direct participation in cases although the Court may receive information from public international organizations. That does not preclude non-state interests from being the subject of proceedings if a state brings the case against another. For example, a state may, in cases of "diplomatic protection", bring a case on behalf of one of its nationals or corporations.
Jurisdiction is often a crucial question for the Court in contentious cases. (See Procedure below.) The key principle is that the ICJ has jurisdiction only on the basis of consent. Article 36 outlines four bases on which the Court's jurisdiction may be founded:
An advisory opinion is a function of the Court open only to specified United Nations bodies and agencies. On receiving a request, the Court decides which states and organizations might provide useful information and gives them an opportunity to present written or oral statements. Advisory opinions were intended as a means by which UN agencies could seek the Court's help in deciding complex legal issues that might fall under their respective mandates.
In principle, the Court's advisory opinions are only consultative in character but they are influential and widely respected. Certain instruments or regulations can provide in advance that the advisory opinion shall be specifically binding on particular agencies or states, but inherently, they are non-binding under the Statute of the Court. This non-binding character does not mean that advisory opinions are without legal effect because the legal reasoning embodied in them reflects the Court's authoritative views on important issues of international law and in arriving at them, the Court follows essentially the same rules and procedures that govern its binding judgments delivered in contentious cases submitted to it by sovereign states.
An advisory opinion derives its status and authority from the fact that it is the official pronouncement of the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.
Advisory opinions have often been controversial because the questions asked are controversial or the case was pursued as an indirect way of bringing what is really a contentious case before the Court. Examples of advisory opinions can be found in the section advisory opinions in the List of International Court of Justice cases article. One such well-known advisory opinion is the Nuclear Weapons Case.
ICJ and the Security Council
Article 94 establishes the duty of all UN members to comply with decisions of the Court involving them. If parties do not comply, the issue may be taken before the Security Council for enforcement action. There are obvious problems with such a method of enforcement. If the judgment is against one of the permanent five members of the Security Council or its allies, any resolution on enforcement would then be vetoed. That occurred, for example, after the Nicaragua case, when Nicaragua brought the issue of US' noncompliance with the Court's decision before the Security Council. Furthermore, if the Security Council refuses to enforce a judgment against any other state, there is no method of forcing the state to comply. Furthermore, the most effective form to take action for the Security Council, coercive action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, can be justified only if international peace and security are at stake. The Security Council has never done that so far.
The relationship between the ICJ and the Security Council, and the separation of their powers, was considered by the Court in 1992 in the Pan Am case. The Court had to consider an application from Libya for the order of provisional measures to protect its rights, which, it alleged, were being infringed by the threat of economic sanctions by the United Kingdom and United States. The problem was that these sanctions had been authorized by the Security Council, which resulted in a potential conflict between the Chapter VII functions of the Security Council and the judicial function of the Court. The Court decided, by eleven votes to five, that it could not order the requested provisional measures because the rights claimed by Libya, even if legitimate under the Montreal Convention, could not be prima facie regarded as appropriate since the action was ordered by the Security Council. In accordance with Article 103 of the UN Charter, obligations under the Charter took precedence over other treaty obligations. Nevertheless, the Court declared the application admissible in 1998. A decision on the merits has not been given since the parties (United Kingdom, United States, and Libya) settled the case out of court in 2003.
There was a marked reluctance on the part of a majority of the Court to become involved in a dispute in such a way as to bring it potentially into conflict with the Council. The Court stated in the Nicaragua case that there is no necessary inconsistency between action by the Security Council and adjudication by the ICJ. However, when there is room for conflict, the balance appears to be in favor of the Security Council.
Should either party fail "to perform the obligations incumbent upon it under a judgment rendered by the Court", the Security Council may be called upon to "make recommendations or decide upon measures" if the Security Council deems such actions necessary. In practice, the Court's powers have been limited by the unwillingness of the losing party to abide by the Court's ruling and by the Security Council's unwillingness to impose consequences. However, in theory, "so far as the parties to the case are concerned, a judgment of the Court is binding, final and without appeal," and "by signing the Charter, a State Member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with any decision of the International Court of Justice in a case to which it is a party."
For example, the United States had previously accepted the Court's compulsory jurisdiction upon its creation in 1946 but in 1984, after Nicaragua v. United States, withdrew its acceptance following the court's judgment that called on the US to "cease and to refrain" from the "unlawful use of force" against the government of Nicaragua. The court ruled (with only the American judge dissenting) that the United States was "in breach of its obligation under the Treaty of Friendship with Nicaragua not to use force against Nicaragua" and ordered the United States to pay war reparations (see note 2).
Examples of contentious cases
When deciding cases, the Court applies international law as summarised in Article 38 of the ICJ Statute, which provides that in arriving at its decisions the Court shall apply international conventions, international custom and the "general principles of law recognised by civilized nations." It may also refer to academic writing ("the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations") and previous judicial decisions to help interpret the law although the Court is not formally bound by its previous decisions under the doctrine of stare decisis. Article 59 makes clear that the common law notion of precedent or stare decisis does not apply to the decisions of the ICJ. The Court's decision binds only the parties to that particular controversy. Under 38(1)(d), however, the Court may consider its own previous decisions.
If the parties agree, they may also grant the Court the liberty to decide ex aequo et bono ("in justice and fairness"), granting the ICJ the freedom to make an equitable decision based on what is fair under the circumstances. That provision has not been used in the Court's history. So far, the International Court of Justice has dealt with about 130 cases.
The ICJ is vested with the power to make its own rules. Court procedure is set out in the Rules of Court of the International Court of Justice 1978 (as amended on 29 September 2005).
Cases before the ICJ will follow a standard pattern. The case is lodged by the applicant that files a written memorial setting out the basis of the Court's jurisdiction and the merits of its claim. The respondent may accept the Court's jurisdiction and file its own memorial on the merits of the case.
A respondent that does not wish to submit to the jurisdiction of the Court may raise Preliminary Objections. Any such objections must be ruled upon before the Court can address the merits of the applicant's claim. Often, a separate public hearing is held on the Preliminary Objections and the Court will render a judgment. Respondents normally file Preliminary Objections to the jurisdiction of the Court and/or the admissibility of the case. Inadmissibility refers to a range of arguments about factors the Court should take into account in deciding jurisdiction, such as the fact that the issue is not justiciable or that it is not a "legal dispute".
In addition, objections may be made because all necessary parties are not before the Court. If the case necessarily requires the Court to rule on the rights and obligations of a state that has not consented to the Court's jurisdiction, the Court does not proceed to issue a judgment on the merits.
If the Court decides it has jurisdiction and the case is admissible, the respondent then is required to file a Memorial addressing the merits of the applicant's claim. Once all written arguments are filed, the Court holds a public hearing on the merits.
Once a case has been filed, any party (usually the applicant) may seek an order from the Court to protect the status quo pending the hearing of the case. Such orders are known as Provisional (or Interim) Measures and are analogous to interlocutory injunctions in United States law. Article 41 of the statute allows the Court to make such orders. The Court must be satisfied to have prima facie jurisdiction to hear the merits of the case before it grants provisional measures.
Applications to intervene
In cases in which a third state's interests are affected, that state may be permitted to intervene in the case and participate as a full party. Under Article 62, a state "with an interest of a legal nature" may apply; however, it is within the Court's discretion whether or not to allow the intervention. Intervention applications are rare, and the first successful application occurred only in 1991.
Judgment and remedies
Once deliberation has taken place, the Court issues a majority opinion. Individual judges may issue concurring opinions (if they agree with the outcome reached in the judgment of the court but differ in their reasoning) or dissenting opinions (if they disagree with the majority). No appeal is possible, but any party may ask for the court to clarify if there is a dispute as to the meaning or scope of the court's judgment.
The International Court has been criticized with respect to its rulings, its procedures, and its authority. As with criticisms of the United Nations, many of these criticisms refer more to the general authority assigned to the body by member states through its charter than to specific problems with the composition of judges or their rulings. Major criticisms include the following: