The International Court of Justice

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 authorised United Nations organs and specialised agencies. The Court is composed of fifteen 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 process of developing 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, to which should also be added good offices.

Some of these methods involve the services of 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.

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), which would 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 Assembly of the League of Nations.

All that remained was 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.

In August 1920, a report containing a draft scheme was submitted to the Council, which, after examining it and making certain amendments, presented it to the First Assembly of the League of Nations, which opened in 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 decided that a vote alone would not be sufficient to establish the PCIJ, and that the Statute would have to be formally ratified by each State represented in the Assembly. In a resolution of December 13, 1920, it called upon the Council to submit a protocol adopting the Statute to the Members of the League of Nations, and decided that the Statute should come into force once a majority of Member States had ratified it.

The protocol was opened for signature on December 16, 1920. 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”.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)

The outbreak of war in September 1939 inevitably had serious consequences for the PCIJ, which had for some years been experiencing a decline in its level of activity. After its last public sitting on December 4, 1939 and its last order on February 26, 1940, the Permanent Court of International Justice in fact dealt with no further judicial business and no elections of judges were held. In 1940 the Court relocated to Geneva, leaving one judge in The Hague together with a few Registry officials of Dutch nationality. Despite the war, consideration needed to be given to the future of the Court and to the creation of a new international political order.

Established in 1945 by the UN Charter, the court began work in 1946 as the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice. The Statute of the International Court of Justice, similar to that of its predecessor, is the main constitutional document constituting and regulating the court.

The court’s workload covers a wide range of judicial activity. After the court ruled that the United States of America’s covert war against Nicaragua was in violation of international law (Nicaragua v. United States), the United States of America withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction in 1986 to accept the court’s jurisdiction only on a discretionary basis. Chapter XIV of the United Nations Charter authorises the UN Security Council to enforce Court rulings. However, such enforcement is subject to the veto power of the five permanent members of the Council, which the United States of America used in the Nicaragua Case.

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 specialised agencies (advisory proceedings). 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. Advisory proceedings before the Court are only open to five organs of the United Nations and sixteen specialised agencies of the United Nations family or affiliated organisations.