FOUNDATION: Unit VI. International Implementation, Monitoring, and Enforcement 7 of 11

International Court of Justice (World Court)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the “World Court”, is the judicial arm of the UN. The ICJ has jurisdiction to decide any case that arises under international law (treaties or customary international law) and can also issue advisory opinions between and among states and for individual states only.

The World Court is composed of 15 judges elected to nine-year terms of office by the General Assembly and Security Council. The Court may not include more than one judge from the same country  Judges of the Court do not represent their own governments. They are independent international magistrates.

The International Court of Justice at the Peace Palace, The Hague

Only states can be parties to lawsuits in the ICJ, but before this can happen, states must first accept the jurisdiction of the Court by submitting a formal letter. If a state does not accept the Court’s jurisdiction, it can’t sue or be sued in the ICJ — unless the state is party to a treaty that has a provision requiring that disputes arising under the treaty are to be settled by the ICJ.

The US was sued by Nicaragua in the World Court in 1984 for mining Nicaragua’s harbors and other hostile acts (Nicaragua v. United States). The US disagreed with the Court that the Court had jurisdiction on this issue, and subsequently the US withdrew its acceptance of the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction and did not participate in the substantive proceedings. The Court ruled in Nicaragua’s favor and found the US in violation of customary international law. The US has ignored the ruling.

The ICJ does not hear many cases, mainly because states are reluctant to sue one another and risk damaging relations. Most of the Court’s cases involve issues other than human rights, but many of its cases have implications for human welfare and human dignity. For example, the US sued Iran in 1979 when Iran took US citizens hostage at the US embassy in Tehran (United States v. Iran). The Court ruled in favor of the US in this case.

Kidnapped Americans in Iran 1979

World Court Issues:

  • The Court can and has ruled on the application of various human rights treaties. In 1993, it began to consider a case involving atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia covered by the Genocide Convention (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro).

  • The Court can also issue advisory opinions, which are intended to clarify the meaning of international law on a certain issue, though advisory opinions do not themselves carry a legal obligation. For example, in 2005, the Court gave the advisory opinion that  Israel’s “separation wall” near its border with Palestinian-controlled areas was in principle a violation of international law. However, Israel was quick to point out that it is under no legal obligation to abide by this opinion, since the opinion does not carry a legal obligation.

  • Enforcement is another problem. Most of the time, countries voluntarily follow the Court’s rulings. Only in very politically charged cases (such as Nicaragua v. US) do states refuse to abide by them. The Court has no feasible way to make states abide by its rulings, so it relies on voluntary compliance. The Court could call on the UN Security Council to authorize military enforcement action, but this would probably do more harm than good. The Court has never taken — and probably will never take — this action. An example of non-military enforcement by the Court is when Libya sued the US and Britain in the ICJ, but lost. The UN Security Council voted diplomatic and economic sanctions against Libya.
What reasons did the US have for accepting the ICJ’s rulings in the 1979 Iran case but not accepting them in the 1984 Nicaragua case?

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