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How International Court of Justice functions and its powers?

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

One of the 6 organs of the United Nations is the International Court of justice (ICJ) which looks at the disputes between the countries but does the countries really care of the judgments of ICJ? Will any sovereign nation abide by the judgment of a third party? Very rare, let's figure this out.

Image from - ICJ

What is ICJ?

It is also known as the World Court and is the main judicial organ of the UN established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and started it's official work by April 1946.

ICJ sits at the Peace Palace, The Hague - Netherlands. Of the six principal organs of the United Nations, it is the only one not located in New York (United States of America).

It is composed of 15 judges elected for the term of 9 years and they are elected by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC). It cannot include more than one national of the same State, basically it follows the rule of one representation of any one nation at same time. The official languages of the court are French and English.

Functions of ICJ

  • Major function by which it was first founded, is to settle the disputes, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States.

  • It can also give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.

  • The Court decides disputes between countries, based on the voluntary participation of the States concerned. If a State agrees to participate in a proceeding, then the state has to abide by the judgment of ICJ.

  • The proceedings are conducted at Hague, but court sessions may be held elsewhere when the court considers it desirable to do so.

How the judges at ICJ are elected?

  • A candidate standing for election of ICJ judge must receive an absolute majority of the votes in both bodies of UN that is the UNGA and UNSC.

  • To ensure a measure of continuity, one third of the Court is elected every three years. So, the total strength of 9 judges always stays.

  • Judges are also eligible for re-election.

  • If a judge dies or resign during his or her term of office, a special election is held as soon as possible to choose a judge to fill the unexpired part of the term.

  • The judges can elect their own president and vice president, each of whom serves a three-year term, and can appoint administrative personnel as necessary.

Powers of ICJ

Under article 36 of the court’s statute:

Any state may consent to the court’s compulsory jurisdiction in advance by filing a declaration to that effect with the UN secretary-general.

By the year, 2000 more than 60 countries had issued such a declaration. The declaration (the “optional clause”) may be made unconditionally, or it may be made on condition of reciprocity on the part of other states or for a certain time.

  • While, proceedings before the court, whether it is written or oral arguments can be presented, and the court may hear witnesses.

  • It can also appoint commissions of experts to make investigations and reports when necessary.

  • Judges usually deliberate in secret but their verdicts, are delivered in open court.

  • Any judge who does not agree in whole or in part with the court’s decision may file a separate opinion, and few decisions represent the unanimous opinion of the judges. The court’s judgment is final and without appeal.

  • No state can be sued, unless it consents to such an action. That means enforceable only if the nation agrees to it.

Cases can be resolved in the following ways:

  • They can be settled by the parties among themselves at any time during the proceedings

  • Any state or party can discontinue the proceedings and withdraw at any point

  • The court can deliver a verdict.

The ICJ decides disputes in accordance with international law as reflected in international conventions, international custom, general principles of law recognized by civilized nations, judicial decisions, and writings of the most highly qualified experts on international law.

Some decision depending on the matter are binding on the parties while some are advisory in nature.

Court itself has no powers of enforcement, but according to article 94 of the Charter of the United Nations:

If any party to a case fails to perform the obligations incumbent upon it under a judgment rendered by the Court, the other party may have recourse to the Security Council, which may, if it deems necessary, make recommendations or decide upon measures to be taken to give effect to the judgment.

Past Judgments

There have been cases where the parties have refused to abide the ruling of ICJ, to cite them,

  • Albania, failed to pay £(pounds) 843,947/- in damages to the United Kingdom in the Corfu Channel case of 1949.

  • The United States (USA) refused to pay reparations to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in 1986.

The United States even later withdrew its declaration of compulsory jurisdiction and blocked Nicaragua’s appeal to the UN Security Council.

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