International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Winter 2015 Issue

International Tribunal Spotlight


International Court of Justice 

Peace Palace

By: Maria Chhubria, Director of Academic Programs, International Judicial Academy

In 1945, at the end of World War II, there were only four international dispute resolution tribunals/courts in the world. One was the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), created in 1899 as a result of the first Hague Peace Conference. The second was the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg created to try leading Nazi war criminals. A third was a similar tribunal in Japan to try Japanese war criminals. The fourth and last was the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) created as part of the League of Nations structures after World War I. Two of these organizations, the PCA and the PCIJ,  were located in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands.

Due to the creation of  the United Nations by the adoption of the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945, a new court was created, the International Court of Justice, which became the successor to the PCIJ and replaced it. As with the PCIJ, the new ICJ was located in the Peace Palace. The PCIJ went out of existence.

The ICJ is an official part of the United Nations structures created by the UN Charter. It is the judicial branch of the UN, just as the UN General Assembly and Security Council make up the UN legislative branch, and the Office of the Secretary-General and UN departments make up the executive branch. The Court, which is also known as the World Court, is composed of 15 judges, elected by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council for a term of nine years. The Registry is responsible for the administrative operations of the Court. The official languages of the Court are English and French.

The Court has two main functions: (1) to settle, in accordance with international law, legal controversies submitted by States (contentious cases); and (2) to provide advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies (advisory proceedings). The  full Court hears oral arguments from the parties in most cases. In some instances, upon request, the Court can designate a special chamber made up of a lesser number of judges to hear and decide a case. In addition the structure of the Court allows for the appointment of ad hoc judges. If a state party to a contentious case is not represented on the Court, then an ad hoc judge can be selected by that state party to sit on that case.

In exercising its contentious jurisdiction, the International Court of Justice decides, according to international law, legal controversies referred by states. An international legal controversy is defined as a “disagreement on a question of law or fact, a conflict, a clash of legal views or of interests.”  The law applied in cases before the court are, according to Article 38 of the Court Statute:

a. international conventions, whether general or particular, establishing rules expressly recognized by the contesting states;

b. international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law;

c. the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations;

d. subject to the provisions of Article 59, judicial decisions and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law.



Only states may request and appear before the ICJ to settle a legal controversy. Under Article 35, paragraph 1 of the Statute the Court is open to the states parties to the Statute, and all members of the United Nations are automatically parties to the Statute. However, the Court can decide on a controversy only if a state has consented to its jurisdiction.

State consent to the court’s jurisdiction may take different forms: special agreement, treaty-based, and compulsory. States parties may submit a case to the court through a special agreement agreed to by the states parties. States parties to a treaty may decide to submit to the Court all controversies concerning the application or interpretation of the treaty.  Under the optional clause, states parties may also accept as compulsory the jurisdiction of the Court by a unilateral and discretionary declaration. Seventy-one UN member states have accepted the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction to date. In addition, there are specific instances where states may accept a recommendation by the Security Council to submit a dispute to the ICJ as provided by article 33 and 36 of the UN Charter. Finally, a state may manifest its consent expressly or implicitly through its conduct.

As indicated above, the contentious jurisdiction of the Court is open only to states. Although international organizations cannot be a party to a case before the court, specifically authorized agencies of the UN can request an advisory opinion in order to submit issues to the Court. Those UN agencies that are authorized to request advisory opinions include: General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, World Health Organization, UNESCO, International Maritime Organizations, and International Fund for Agriculture Development.

The advisory procedure is a special proceeding and has different purpose compared to the contentious procedure. Under Article 65, authorized agencies by or in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations can request the Court to give an advisory opinion. Typically the United-Nations Secretary-General or the director or secretary-general of the entity requesting the opinion files a written demand containing all the elements of the question and all the relevant documents. The written request is submitted to the Registrar of the Court, which will notify all the states entitled to appear before the Court or international organization that will be likely able to provide any information relevant to the case. In addition such states and organization are allowed to present statements and comments during the proceeding.

Generally, the Court's advisory opinions have no binding effect, and the parties involved are free to abide or not by the Court’s decision. However, advisory opinions receive high legal consideration and are greatly regarded within the international community. They may resolve important legal issues and contribute to the development of international law. In some case the Court’s advisory opinions may be binding because the parties have decided that they should have this effect.

The ICJ’s jurisdiction covers a wide range of international legal issues.  Many of the disputes submitted to it involve territory, national boundaries, and rights to natural resources.  However, a significant number of its decisions have dealt with or touched upon international human rights, such as the right to consular assistance for detained foreign nationals; racial discrimination; political asylum; the exercise of universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity; and acts of genocide.

Since its creation and “as of 2 November 2014, 161cases have been entered onto the General List for consideration before the court.” Of these, 26 have been requests for advisory opinions.

The basic provisions for the ICJ can be found in Chapter Fourteen, Articles 92-96 of the UN Charter. More detailed provisions about the functioning of the Court can be found in the separate Statute of the International Court of Justice, which is annexed to the United Nations Charter.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2015 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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