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The International Court of Justice


The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It is the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice, which was established under the League of Nations. Located in the Peace Palace in The Hague, the ICJ is composed of 15 judges, who are elected by the U.N. General Assembly to serve nine-year terms.

The ICJ is empowered to decide two types of cases. First, the ICJ can issue advisory opinions when requested to do so by the Security Council, the General Assembly or several other United Nations bodies authorized to request such opinions. Since its creation, the ICJ has issued twenty-one advisory opinions.

Second, the Court can exercise jurisdiction in a contentious case between two or more States with the consent of the parties. The ICJ does not have jurisdiction over individuals, except to the extent that a State espouses their claims. Since its creation, the ICJ has issued judgments in thirty-nine contentious cases. That amounts to the Court hearing an average of less than two cases each year. During the 1990s, however, the Court became increasingly active, and it currently has eight contentious cases, and two requests for advisory opinions on its docket.


Consent to jurisdiction over contentious cases can be given in three ways. First, States can agree to have their disputes decided by the ICJ on an ad hoc basis. Second, many treaties contain provisions giving the ICJ jurisdiction over any dispute between parties to the treaty as to its interpretation or application. Third, States may make a declaration under Article 36(2) of the ICJ statute, agreeing to the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court in relation to other States that have made a like declaration. As of 1997, fifty-nine States had accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ.

Declarations made under Article 36(2) may specifically exclude certain categories of disputes from the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction. Such declarations are subject to reciprocity, and a defendant state against which a proceeding is brought may invoke an exclusion not stipulated in its own declaration but included in the declaration of the plaintiff state.

The United States had agreed in 1946 to the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ with two principal exceptions. The first, known as the “Connelly reservation,” provided that the United States does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ over disputes with regard to matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States as determined by the United States. The second, known as the “Vandenberg reservation” exempted the United States from the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction with respect to any disputes arising under a multilateral treaty unless all parties to the treaty affected by the decision are also parties to the case before the Court. After the ICJ ruled that it had jurisdiction over Nicaragua’s suit against the United States concerning U.S. support of the Contras and mining of Nicaragua harbors, the United States terminated its acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ.

The termination of the United States’ acceptance of the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction has not completely immunized the United States from the ICJ. The United States has subsequently been hailed before the ICJ on several occasions pursuant to clauses contained in multilateral treaties to which the United States is a party. It has become the recent practice of the United States to make a reservation opting out of the ICJ jurisdiction clause of multilateral treaties at the time of ratification, but the United States continues to be party to over one hundred treaties containing an ICJ jurisdiction clause.

Judgments of the ICJ are binding between the parties. Under Article 94(1) of the U.N. Charter, all members of the United Nations have undertaken to comply with a judgment of the ICJ in any case to which they are parties. If a party fails to comply with the judgment of the ICJ, any other party may call on the Security Council to enforce the judgment. ICJ decisions are widely recognized as important statements of existing international law, and they are often cited as authority to support fundamental principles of international legal development.

Contentious cases usually involve three phases. First, the parties often request that the ICJ “indicate” provisional measures in order to preserve their respective rights while a case is pending. Decisions on provisional measures are usually issued within a few weeks from the initial request. While provisional measures are somewhat analogous to a preliminary injunction or a temporary restraining order under U.S. domestic law, the court has never ruled whether an order indicating provisional measures is mandatory on the parties. The second phase involves challenges to the Court’s jurisdiction. The Court will entertain briefs and oral arguments on the matter before making a decision. Finally, the Court will entertain briefs and oral arguments on the merits of the case. From start to finish, the ICJ may take several years to rule on a dispute. The final decision of the ICJ is not subject to appeal.

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