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

Fall 2016/Winter 2017 Issue

International Tribunal Spotlight


Central American Court of Justice 

Central American Court of Justice 

By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor

The phrase international court usually carries with it the implication that the jurisdiction of such a court, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague, is world wide. However, the number of regional international courts and tribunals, that is, courts that have a jurisdiction not limited by the national boundaries of a certain country, has increased substantially in the 21st Century. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Special Court for Sierra Leone are examples of this new trend.

The idea of a regional international court has a much longer history; the first such court was founded in 1907. It was the Central American Court of Justice, which an outgrowth of the Central American Peace Conference in Washington, promoted by then U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root. (his assistance and support for this effort was one of the reasons for his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912). It was the first court with jurisdiction beyond national boundaries (the Permanent Court of International Justice had not yet been formed). The CACJ however, had a limited time life of 10 years. Its headquarters were first located in Cartago, Costa Rica but after an earthquake in 1910 destroyed the building they were moved to San Jose. The building in San Jose had been built with funds donated by American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. When the Court dissolved in 1918 the building was taken over by the Costa Rican government.

The CACJ had five judges, one each from each of the members states,  Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Its jurisdiction extended not only to disputes between states, but also those between states and citizens of Central American states.


Unfortunately, during the 10 years of its existence, it received only 10 cases, of which only a few reached the hearing stage.  However it did hear and decide one significant case involving the river between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the San Juan River. In the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916. Nicaragua had granted the United States rights for use of the river. Costa Rica claimed that the treaty violated preexisting treaty rights. The Court ruled in favor of Costa Rica, but Nicaragua did not accept the Court’s ruling and withdrew from the Court. That and other actions of the Court led to its dissolution in 1918.

In the post World War II era, in 1951, Central American states joined together to create a new Organization of Central American States. Its original charter was amended in 1952 to create a new regional court with the same name as the earlier regional tribunal. That burst of activity proved to be meaningless for 40 years; it did not function during that period. It was revived in 1991 when the Central American states signed the agreement known as the Protocol of Tegucigaipa, which resulted in the Central American Integration System.

The revived court has jurisdiction over three types of cases: a dispute between member states or a dispute between a member state and a non-member state if the latter has consented to jurisdiction; a dispute between a member state and a natural person who is a resident of a member state; and a dispute arising from the integration process that involve a member state or one of its residents. Its actual role since its founding has been consultative for supreme courts of the member states. It can also hear disputes between "constitutional organs of member states".

The Court now operates out of offices at the United Nations. It heard its first case in 1994, and since that time has made 70 “resolutions.” In one case heard in 2005, it invalidated certain “reforms” of the Nicaraguan government of President Enrique Bolanos.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2017 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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