International Court of Justice The Court

The Court

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and began work in April 1946. The seat of the Court is at the Peace Palace in 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). The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies. The Court is composed of 15 judges, who are elected for terms of office of nine years by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. It is assisted by a Registry, its administrative organ. Its official languages are English and French.


The creation of the Court represented the culmination of a long development of methods for the pacific settlement of international disputes, the origins of which can be traced back to classical times.

Article 33 of the United Nations Charter lists the following methods for the pacific settlement of disputes between States: negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, and resort to regional agencies or arrangements; good offices should also be added to this list. Among these methods, certain involve appealing to third parties. For example, mediation places the parties to a dispute in a position in which they can themselves resolve their dispute thanks to the intervention of a third party. Arbitration goes further, in the sense that the dispute is submitted to the decision or award of an impartial third party, so that a binding settlement can be achieved. The same is true of judicial settlement (the method applied by the International Court of Justice), except that a court is subject to stricter rules than an arbitral tribunal, particularly in procedural matters.

Mediation and arbitration preceded judicial settlement in history. The former was known in ancient India and in the Islamic world, whilst numerous examples of the latter are to be found in ancient Greece, in China, among the Arabian tribes, in maritime customary law in medieval Europe and in Papal practice.

The origins

The modern history of international arbitration is, however, generally recognized as dating from the so-called Jay Treaty of 1794 between the United States of America and Great Britain. This Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation provided for the creation of three mixed commissions, composed of American and British nationals in equal numbers, whose task it would be to settle a number of outstanding questions between the two countries which it had not been possible to resolve by negotiation. Whilst it is true that these mixed commissions were not strictly speaking organs of third-party adjudication, they were intended to function to some extent as tribunals. They reawakened interest in the process of arbitration. Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States and the United Kingdom had recourse to them, as did other States in Europe and the Americas.

The Alabama Claims arbitration in 1872 between the United Kingdom and the United States marked the start of a second, and still more decisive, phase. Under the Treaty of Washington of 1871, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to submit to arbitration claims by the former for alleged breaches of neutrality by the latter during the American Civil War. The two countries stated certain rules governing the duties of neutral governments that were to be applied by the tribunal, which they agreed should consist of five members, to be appointed respectively by the Heads of State of the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Italy and Switzerland, the last three States not being parties to the case. The arbitral tribunal’s award ordered the United Kingdom to pay compensation and it was duly complied with. The proceedings served as a demonstration of the effectiveness of arbitration in the settlement of a major dispute and it led during the latter years of the nineteenth century to developments in various directions, namely:

  • sharp growth in the practice of inserting in treaties clauses providing for recourse to arbitration in the event of a dispute between the parties;
  • the conclusion of general treaties of arbitration for the settlement of specified classes of inter-State disputes;
  • efforts to construct a general law of arbitration, so that countries wishing to have recourse to this means of settling disputes would not be obliged to agree each time on the procedure to be adopted, the composition of the tribunal, the rules to be followed and the factors to be taken into consideration in making the award;
  • proposals for the creation of a permanent international arbitral tribunal in order to obviate the need to set up a special ad hoc tribunal to decide each arbitrable dispute.

The Hague Peace Conferences and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)

The Hague Peace Conference of 1899, convened at the initiative of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, marked the beginning of a third phase in the modern history of international arbitration. The chief object of the Conference, in which — a remarkable innovation for the time — the smaller States of Europe, some Asian States and Mexico also participated, was to discuss peace and disarmament. It ended by adopting a Convention on the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, which dealt not only with arbitration but also with other methods of pacific settlement, such as good offices and mediation.

With respect to arbitration, the 1899 Convention made provision for the creation of permanent machinery which would enable arbitral tribunals to be set up as desired and would facilitate their work. This institution, known as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, consisted in essence of a panel of jurists designated by each country acceding to the Convention — each such country being entitled to designate up to four — from among whom the members of each arbitral tribunal might be chosen. The Convention further created a permanent Bureau, located at The Hague, with functions corresponding to those of a court registry or a secretariat, and it laid down a set of rules of procedure to govern the conduct of arbitrations. It will be seen that the name “Permanent Court of Arbitration” is not a wholly accurate description of the machinery set up by the Convention, which represented only a method or device for facilitating the creation of arbitral tribunals as and when necessary. Nevertheless, the system so established was permanent and the Convention as it were “institutionalized” the law and practice of arbitration, placing it on a more definite and more generally accepted footing. The Permanent Court of Arbitration was established in 1900 and began operating in 1902.

A few years later, in 1907, a second Hague Peace Conference, to which the States of Central and South America were also invited, revised the Convention and improved the rules governing arbitral proceedings. Some participants would have preferred the Conference not to confine itself to improving the machinery created in 1899. The United States Secretary of State, Elihu Root, had instructed the United States delegation to work towards the creation of a permanent tribunal composed of judges who were judicial officers and nothing else, who had no other occupation, and who would devote their entire time to the trial and decision of international cases by judicial methods. “These judges”, wrote Secretary Root, “should be so selected from the different countries that the different systems of law and procedure and the principal languages shall be fairly represented”. The United States, the United Kingdom and Germany submitted a joint proposal for a permanent court, but the Conference was unable to reach agreement upon it. It became apparent in the course of the discussions that one of the major difficulties was that of finding an acceptable way of choosing the judges, none of the proposals made having managed to command general support. The Conference confined itself to recommending that States should adopt a draft convention for the creation of a court of arbitral justice as soon as agreement was reached “respecting the selection of the judges and the constitution of the court”. Although this court was never in fact to see the light of day, the draft convention that was to have given birth to it enshrined certain fundamental ideas that some years later were to serve as a source of inspiration for the drafting of the Statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ).

Notwithstanding the fate of these proposals, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which in 1913 took up residence in the Peace Palace that had been built for it thanks to a gift from Andrew Carnegie, has made a positive contribution to the development of international law. Among the classic cases that have been decided through recourse to its machinery, mention may be made of the Carthage and Manouba cases (1913) concerning the seizure of vessels, and of the Timor Frontiers (1914) and Sovereignty over the Island of Palmas (1928) cases. Whilst demonstrating that arbitral tribunals set up by recourse to standing machinery could decide disputes between States on a basis of law and justice and command respect for their impartiality, these cases threw into bold relief the shortcomings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Tribunals of differing composition could hardly be expected to develop a consistent approach to international law to the same extent as a permanently constituted tribunal. Besides, there was the entirely voluntary character of the machinery. The fact that States were parties to the 1899 and 1907 Conventions did not oblige them to submit their disputes to arbitration nor, even if they were minded so to do, were they duty-bound to have recourse to the Permanent Court of Arbitration nor to follow the rules of procedure laid down in the Conventions.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration has recently sought to diversify the services that it can offer, alongside those contemplated by the Conventions. The International Bureau of the Permanent Court has inter alia acted as Registry in some important international arbitrations, including that between Eritrea and Yemen on questions of territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation (1998 and 1999), that concerning the delimitation of the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia (2002), and that between Ireland and the United Kingdom under the 1992 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR). Moreover, in 1993, the Permanent Court of Arbitration adopted new “Optional Rules for Arbitrating Disputes between Two Parties of Which Only One Is a State” and, in 2001, “Optional Rules for Arbitration of Disputes Relating to Natural Resources and/or the Environment”.

For more information on the Permanent Court of Arbitration, please visit their website:

The work of the two Hague Peace Conferences and the ideas they inspired in statesmen and jurists had some influence on the creation of the Central American Court of Justice, which operated from 1908 to 1918, as well as on the various plans and proposals submitted between 1911 and 1919 both by national and international bodies and by governments for the establishment of an international judicial tribunal, which culminated in the creation of the PCIJ within the framework of the new international system set up after the end of the First World War.

The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ)

Article 14 of the Covenant of the League of Nations gave the Council of the League responsibility for formulating plans for the establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), such a court to be competent not only to hear and determine any dispute of an international character submitted to it by the parties to the dispute, but also to give an advisory opinion upon any dispute or question referred to it by the Council or by the Assembly. It remained for the League Council to take the necessary action to give effect to Article 14. At its second session early in 1920, the Council appointed an Advisory Committee of Jurists to submit a report on the establishment of the PCIJ. The committee sat in The Hague, under the chairmanship of Baron Descamps ( Belgium). In August 1920, a report containing a draft scheme was submitted to the Council, which, after examining it and making certain amendments, laid it before the First Assembly of the League of Nations, which opened at Geneva in November of that year. The Assembly instructed its Third Committee to examine the question of the Court’s constitution. In December 1920, after an exhaustive study by a subcommittee, the Committee submitted a revised draft to the Assembly, which unanimously adopted it. This was the Statute of the PCIJ.

The Assembly took the view that a vote alone would not be sufficient to establish the PCIJ and that each State represented in the Assembly would formally have to ratify the Statute. In a resolution of 13 December 1920, it called upon the Council to submit to the Members of the League of Nations a protocol adopting the Statute and decided that the Statute should come into force as soon as the protocol had been ratified by a majority of Member States. The protocol was opened for signature on 16 December. By the time of the next meeting of the Assembly, in September 1921, a majority of the Members of the League had signed and ratified the protocol. The Statute thus entered into force. It was to be revised only once, in 1929, the revised version coming into force in 1936. Among other things, the new Statute resolved the previously insurmountable problem of the election of the members of a permanent international tribunal by providing that the judges were to be elected concurrently but independently by the Council and the Assembly of the League, and that it should be borne in mind that those elected “should represent the main forms of civilization and the principal legal systems of the world”. Simple as this solution may now seem, in 1920 it was a considerable achievement to have devised it. The first elections were held on 14 September 1921. Following approaches by the Netherlands Government in the spring of 1919, it was decided that the PCIJ should have its permanent seat in the Peace Palace in The Hague, which it would share with the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It was accordingly in the Peace Palace that on 30 January 1922 the Court’s preliminary session devoted to the elaboration of the Court’s Rules opened, and it was there too that its inaugural sitting was held on 15 February 1922, with the Dutch jurist Bernard C. J.  Loder as President.

The PCIJ was thus a working reality. The great advance it represented in the history of international legal proceedings can be appreciated by considering the following:

  • unlike arbitral tribunals, the PCIJ was a permanently constituted body governed by its own Statute and Rules of Procedure, fixed beforehand and binding on parties having recourse to the Court;
  • it had a permanent Registry which, inter alia, served as a channel of communication with governments and international bodies;
  • its proceedings were largely public and provision was made for the publication in due course of the pleadings, of verbatim records of the sittings and of all documentary evidence submitted to it;
  • the permanent tribunal thus established was now able to set about gradually developing a constant practice and maintaining a certain continuity in its decisions, thereby enabling it to make a greater contribution to the development of international law;
  • in principle the PCIJ was accessible to all States for the judicial settlement of their international disputes and they were able to declare beforehand that for certain classes of legal disputes they recognized the Court’s jurisdiction as compulsory in relation to other States accepting the same obligation. This system of optional acceptance of the jurisdiction of the Court was the most that it was then possible to obtain;
  • the PCIJ was empowered to give advisory opinions upon any dispute or question referred to it by the League of Nations Council or Assembly;
  • the Court’s Statute specifically listed the sources of law it was to apply in deciding contentious cases and giving advisory opinions, without prejudice to the power of the Court to decide a case ex aequo et bono if the parties so agreed;
  • it was more representative of the international community and of the major legal systems of the world than any other international tribunal had ever been before it.

Although the Permanent Court of International Justice was brought into being through, and by, the League of Nations, it was nevertheless not a part of the League. There was a close association between the two bodies, which found expression inter alia in the fact that the League Council and Assembly periodically elected the Members of the Court and that both Council and Assembly were entitled to seek advisory opinions from the Court, but the latter never formed an integral part of the League, just as the Statute never formed part of the Covenant. In particular, a Member State of the League of Nations was not by this fact alone automatically a party to the Court’s Statute.

Between 1922 and 1940 the PCIJ dealt with 29 contentious cases between States and delivered 27 advisory opinions. At the same time several hundred treaties, conventions and declarations conferred jurisdiction upon it over specified classes of disputes. Any doubts that might thus have existed as to whether a permanent international judicial tribunal could function in a practical and effective manner were thus dispelled. The Court’s value to the international community was demonstrated in a number of different ways, in the first place by the development of a true judicial technique. This found expression in the Rules of Court, which the PCIJ originally drew up in 1922 and subsequently revised on three occasions, in 1926, 1931 and 1936. There was also the PCIJ’s Resolution concerning the Judicial Practice of the Court, adopted in 1931 and revised in 1936, which laid down the internal procedure to be applied during the Court’s deliberations on each case. In addition, whilst helping to resolve some serious international disputes, many of them consequences of the First World War, the decisions of the PCIJ at the same time often clarified previously unclear areas of international law or contributed to its development.

For more information on the Permanent Court of International Justice, please see the “PCIJ“ pages on our website.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)

The outbreak of war in September 1939 inevitably had serious consequences for the PCIJ, which had already for some years known a period of diminished activity. After its last public sitting on 4 December 1939, the Permanent Court of International Justice did not in fact deal with any judicial business and no further elections of judges were held. In 1940 the Court removed to Geneva, a single judge remaining at The Hague, together with a few Registry officials of Dutch nationality. It was inevitable that even under the stress of the war some thought should be given to the future of the Court, as well as to the creation of a new international political order.

In 1942 the United States Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom declared themselves in favour of the establishment or re-establishment of an international court after the war, and the Inter-American Juridical Committee recommended the extension of the PCIJ’s jurisdiction. Early in 1943, the United Kingdom Government took the initiative of inviting a number of experts to London to constitute an informal Inter-Allied Committee to examine the matter. This Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir William Malkin ( United Kingdom), held 19 meetings, which were attended by jurists from 11 countries. In its report, which was published on 10 February 1944, it recommended:

  • that the Statute of any new international court should be based on that of the Permanent Court of International Justice;
  • that advisory jurisdiction should be retained in the case of the new Court;
  • that acceptance of the jurisdiction of the new Court should not be compulsory;
  • that the Court should have no jurisdiction to deal with essentially political matters.

Meanwhile, on 30 October 1943, following a conference between China, the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States, a joint declaration was issued recognizing the necessity “of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving States, and open to membership by all such States, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

This declaration led to exchanges between the Four Powers at Dumbarton Oaks, resulting in the publication on 9 October 1944 of proposals for the establishment of a general international organization, to include an international court of justice. The next step was the convening of a meeting in Washington, in April 1945, of a committee of jurists representing 44 States. This Committee, under the chairmanship of G. H. Hackworth ( United States), was entrusted with the preparation of a draft Statute for the future international court of justice, for submission to the San Francisco Conference, which during the months of April to June 1945 was to draw up the United Nations Charter. The draft Statute prepared by the Committee was based on the Statute of the PCIJ and was thus not a completely fresh text. The Committee nevertheless felt constrained to leave a number of questions open which it felt should be decided by the Conference: should a new court be created? In what form should the court’s mission as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations be stated? Should the court’s jurisdiction be compulsory, and, if so, to what extent? How should the judges be elected? The final decisions on these points, and on the definitive form of the Statute, were taken at the San Francisco Conference, in which 50 States participated. The Conference decided against compulsory jurisdiction and in favour of the creation of an entirely new court, which would be a principal organ of the United Nations, on the same footing as the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat, and with the Statute annexed to and forming part of the Charter. The chief reasons that led the Conference to decide to create a new court were the following:

  • as the court was to be the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, it was felt inappropriate for this role to be filled by the Permanent Court of International Justice, which had up until then been linked to the League of Nations, then on the point of dissolution;
  • the creation of a new court was more consistent with the provision in the Charter that all Member States of the United Nations would ipso facto be parties to the court’s Statute;
  • several States that were parties to the Statute of the PCIJ were not represented at the San Francisco Conference, and, conversely, several States represented at the Conference were not parties to the Statute;
  • there was a feeling in some quarters that the PCIJ formed part of an older order, in which European States had dominated the political and legal affairs of the international community, and that the creation of a new court would make it easier for States outside Europe to play a more influential role. This has in fact happened as the membership of the United Nations grew from 51 in 1945 to 192 in 2006.

The San Francisco Conference nevertheless showed some concern that all continuity with the past should not be broken, particularly as the Statute of the PCIJ had itself been drawn up on the basis of past experience, and it was felt better not to change something that had seemed to work well. The Charter therefore plainly stated that the Statute of the International Court of Justice was based upon that of the PCIJ. At the same time, the necessary steps were taken for a transfer of the jurisdiction of the PCIJ so far as was possible to the International Court of Justice. In any event, the decision to create a new court necessarily involved the dissolution of its predecessor. The PCIJ met for the last time in October 1945 when it was decided to take all appropriate measures to ensure the transfer of its archives and effects to the new International Court of Justice, which, like its predecessor, was to have its seat in the Peace Palace. The judges of the PCIJ all resigned on 31 January 1946, and the election of the first Members of the International Court of Justice took place on 6 February 1946, at the First Session of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. In April 1946, the PCIJ was formally dissolved, and the International Court of Justice, meeting for the first time, elected as its President Judge José Gustavo Guerrero ( El Salvador), the last President of the PCIJ. The Court appointed the members of its Registry (largely from among former officials of the PCIJ) and held an inaugural public sitting, on the 18th of that month. The first case was submitted in May 1947. It concerned incidents in the Corfu Channel and was brought by the United Kingdom against Albania.

Members of the Court

The International Court of Justice is composed of 15 judges elected to nine-year terms of office by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council.  These organs vote simultaneously but separately.  In order to be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes in both bodies.  This sometimes makes it necessary for a number of rounds of voting to be carried out.

In order to ensure a measure of continuity, one third of the Court is elected every three years.  Judges are eligible for re-election.  Should a judge die 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.

Elections are held in New York (United States of America) on the occasion of the annual autumn session of the General Assembly.  The judges elected at a triennial election enter upon their term of office on 6 February of the following year, after which the Court proceeds to elect by secret ballot a President and a Vice-President to hold office for three years.

All States parties to the Statute of the Court have the right to propose candidates.  These proposals are made not by the government of the State concerned, but by a group consisting of the members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (see “History”) designated by that State, i.e. by the four jurists who can be called upon to serve as members of an arbitral tribunal under the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.  In the case of countries not represented on the Permanent Court of Arbitration, nominations are made by a group constituted in the same way.  Each group can propose up to four candidates, not more than two of whom may be of its own nationality, whilst the others may be from any country whatsoever, whether a party to the Statute or not and whether or not it has declared that it accepts the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ.  The names of candidates must be communicated to the Secretary-General of the United Nations within a time-limit laid down by him/her.

Judges must be elected from among persons of high moral character, who possess the qualifications required in their respective countries for appointment to the highest judicial offices, or are jurisconsults of recognized competence in international law.

The Court may not include more than one national of the same State.  Moreover, the Court as a whole must represent the main forms of civilization and the principal legal systems of the world.

In practice this principle has found expression in the distribution of membership of the Court among the principal regions of the globe.  Today this distribution is as follows:  Africa 3, Latin America and the Caribbean 2, Asia 3, Western Europe and other States 5, Eastern Europe 2, which corresponds to that of membership of the Security Council.  Although there is no entitlement to membership on the part of any country, the Court has always included judges of the nationality of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Once elected, a Member of the Court is a delegate neither of the government of his own country nor of that of any other State.  Unlike most other organs of international organizations, the Court is not composed of representatives of governments.  Members of the Court are independent judges whose first task, before taking up their duties, is to make a solemn declaration in open court that they will exercise their powers impartially and conscientiously.

In order to guarantee his or her independence, no Member of the Court can be dismissed unless, in the unanimous opinion of the other Members, he/she no longer fulfills the required conditions.  This has in fact never happened.

No Member of the Court may engage in any other occupation during his/her term.  He/she is not allowed to exercise any political or administrative function, nor to act as agent, counsel or advocate in any case.  Any doubts with regard to this question are settled by decision of the Court.

A Member of the Court, when engaged on the business of the Court, enjoys privileges and immunities comparable with those of the head of a diplomatic mission.  In The Hague, the President takes precedence over the doyen of the diplomatic corps, after which precedence alternates between judges and ambassadors.  Each Member of the Court receives an annual salary of US$170,080, with a special supplementary allowance of US$15,000 for the President, and, on leaving the Court, they receive annual pensions which, after a nine-year term of office, amount to US$80,000.

Although the Court is deemed to be permanently in session, only its President is obliged to reside in The Hague.  However, the other Members of the Court are required to be permanently at its disposal except during judicial vacations or leave of absence, or when they are prevented from attending by illness or other serious reasons.  In practice, the majority of Court Members reside in The Hague and all will normally spend the greater part of the year there.

How the Court Works

Contentious cases
Advisory proceedings

The Court may entertain two types of cases: legal disputes between States submitted to it by them (contentious cases) and requests for advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by United Nations organs and specialized agencies (advisory proceedings).

Contentious cases

Only States (States Members of the United Nations and other States which have become parties to the Statute of the Court or which have accepted its jurisdiction under certain conditions) may be parties to contentious cases.

The Court is competent to entertain a dispute only if the States concerned have accepted its jurisdiction in one or more of the following ways:

  • by entering into a special agreement to submit the dispute to the Court;
  • by virtue of a jurisdictional clause, i.e., typically, when they are parties to a treaty containing a provision whereby, in the event of a dispute of a given type or disagreement over the interpretation or application of the treaty, one of them may refer the dispute to the Court;
  • through the reciprocal effect of declarations made by them under the Statute whereby each has accepted the jurisdiction of the Court as compulsory in the event of a dispute with another State having made a similar declaration. A number of these declarations, which must be deposited with the United Nations Secretary-General, contain reservations excluding certain categories of dispute.

States have no permanent representatives accredited to the Court. They normally communicate with the Registrar through the medium of their Minister for Foreign Affairs or their ambassador accredited to the Netherlands. Where they are parties to a case before the Court they are represented by an agent. An agent plays the same role, and has the same rights and obligations, as a solicitor or avoué with respect to a national court. But we are dealing here with international relations, and the agent is also as it were the head of a special diplomatic mission with powers to commit a sovereign State. He/she receives communications from the Registrar concerning the case and forwards to the Registrar all correspondence and pleadings duly signed or certified. In public hearings the agent opens the argument on behalf of the government he/she represents and lodges the submissions. In general, whenever a formal act is to be done by the government represented, it is done by the agent. Agents are sometimes assisted by co-agents, deputy agents or assistant agents and always have counsel or advocates, whose work they co-ordinate, to assist them in the preparation of the pleadings and the delivery of oral argument. Since there is no special International Court of Justice Bar, there are no conditions that have to be fulfilled for counsel or advocates to enjoy the right of arguing before it except only that they must have been appointed by a government to do so.

Proceedings may be instituted in one of two ways:

  • through the notification of a special agreement: this document, which is of a bilateral nature, can be lodged with the Court by either of the States parties to the proceedings or by both of them. A special agreement must indicate the subject of the dispute and the parties thereto. Since there is neither an “applicant” State nor a “respondent” State, in the Court’s publications their names are separated by an oblique stroke at the end of the official title of the case, e.g., Benin/Niger;
  • by means of an application: the application, which is of a unilateral nature, is submitted by an applicant State against a respondent State. It is intended for communication to the latter State and the Rules of Court contain stricter requirements with respect to its content. In addition to the name of the party against which the claim is brought and the subject of the dispute, the applicant State must, as far as possible, indicate briefly on what basis  – a treaty or a declaration of acceptance of compulsory jurisdiction  – it claims the Court has jurisdiction, and must succinctly state the facts and grounds on which it bases its claim. At the end of the official title of the case the names of the two parties are separated by the abbreviation “v.” (for the Latin versus), e.g., Nicaragua v. Colombia.

The date of the institution of proceedings, which is that of the receipt by the Registrar of the special agreement or application, marks the opening of proceedings before the Court. C ontentious proceedings include a written phase, in which the parties file and exchange pleadings containing a detailed statement of the points of fact and of law on which each party relies, and an oral phase consisting of public hearings at which agents and counsel address the Court. As the Court has two official languages (English and French), everything written or said in one language is translated into the other. The written pleadings are not made available to the press and public until the opening of the oral proceedings, and then only if the parties have no objection.

After the oral proceedings the Court deliberates in camera and then delivers its judgment at a public sitting. The judgment is final, binding on the parties to a case and without appeal (at most it may be subject to interpretation or revision). Any judge wishing to do so may append an opinion to the judgment.

By signing the Charter, a State Member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with any decision of the Court in a case to which it is a party. Since, furthermore, a case can only be submitted to the Court and decided by it if the parties have in one way or another consented to its jurisdiction over the case, it is rare for a decision not to be implemented. A State which contends that the other side has failed to perform the obligations incumbent upon it under a judgment rendered by the Court may lay the matter before the Security Council, which is empowered to recommend or decide upon the measures to be taken to give effect to the judgment.

The procedure described above is the normal procedure. Certain matters can however affect the proceedings. The most common case is that of preliminary objections raised in order to prevent the Court from delivering judgment on the merits of the case (the respondent State may contend, for example, that the Court lacks jurisdiction or that the application is inadmissible). The matter is one for the Court itself to decide. Then, there are provisional measures, which can be requested as interim measures by the applicant State if the latter considers that the rights which form the subject of its application are in immediate danger. It may further occur that a State seeks to intervene in a dispute involving other States because it considers that it has an interest of a legal nature which may be affected by the decision to be taken in the dispute between those States. The Statute also makes provision for cases where the respondent State does not appear before the Court, either because it totally rejects the Court’s jurisdiction or for any other reason. Hence failure by one party to appear does not prevent proceedings in a case from taking their course. But in such a case the Court must first satisfy itself that it has jurisdiction. Finally, should the Court find that parties to separate proceedings are submitting the same arguments and submissions against a common opponent in relation to the same issue, it may order joinder of the proceedings.

The Court discharges its duties as a full court but, at the request of the parties, it may also establish ad hoc chambers to examine specific cases. A Chamber of Summary Procedure is elected every year by the Court in accordance with its Statute.

The sources of law that the Court must apply are: international treaties and conventions in force; international custom; the general principles of law; and judicial decisions and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists. Moreover, if the parties agree, the Court can decide a case ex aequo et bono, i.e., without limiting itself to existing rules of international law.

A case may be brought to a conclusion at any stage of the proceedings by a settlement between the parties or by discontinuance. In the latter case, an applicant State may at any time inform the Court that it is not going on with the proceedings, or the two parties may declare that they have agreed to withdraw the case. The Court then removes the case from its List.

Advisory proceedings

Advisory proceedings before the Court are open solely to five organs of the United Nations and to 16 specialized agencies of the United Nations family.

The United Nations General Assembly and Security Council may request advisory opinions on “any legal question”. Other United Nations organs and specialized agencies which have been authorized to seek advisory opinions can only do so with respect to “legal questions arising within the scope of their activities”.

When it receives a request for an advisory opinion, the Court, in order that it may give its opinion with full knowledge of the facts, is empowered to hold written and oral proceedings, certain aspects of which recall the proceedings in contentious cases. In theory, the Court may do without such proceedings, but it has never dispensed with them entirely.

A few days after the request is filed, the Court draws up a list of those States and international organizations that will be able to furnish information on the question before the Court. Those States are not in the same position as parties to contentious proceedings: their representatives before the Court are not known as agents and their participation, if any, in the advisory proceedings does not render the Court’s opinion binding upon them. In general, the States listed are the Member States of the organization requesting the opinion. Any State not consulted by the Court may ask to be.

It is rare, however, for the ICJ to allow international organizations other than the one having requested the opinion to participate in advisory proceedings. With respect to non-governmental international organizations, the only one ever authorized by the ICJ to furnish information did not in the end do so (International Status of South West Africa). The Court has rejected all such requests by private parties.

The written proceedings are shorter but as flexible as in contentious proceedings between States. Participants may file written statements, which sometimes form the object of written comments by other participants. The written statements and comments are regarded as confidential, but are generally made available to the public at the beginning of the oral proceedings. States are then usually invited to present oral statements at public sittings.

Advisory proceedings are concluded by the delivery of the advisory opinion at a public sitting.

It is of the essence of such opinions that they are advisory, i.e., that, unlike the Court’s judgments, they have no binding effect. The requesting organ, agency or organization remains free to give effect to the opinion by any means open to it, or not to do so. Certain instruments or regulations can, however, provide beforehand that an advisory opinion by the Court shall have binding force (e.g., conventions on the privileges and immunities of the United Nations).

It remains nevertheless that the authority and prestige of the Court attach to its advisory opinions and that where the organ or agency concerned endorses that opinion, that decision is as it were sanctioned by international law.

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