Global Policy Forum

The International Court of Justice

Picture Credit: UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi

This page covers the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN system's highest judicial body. The ICJ settles legal disputes between states, who must agree to abide by the Court's jurisdiction before their case will be heard. The ICJ also gives advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by UN bodies and agencies. Here, particular emphasis is given to the relationship between the ICJ and the Security Council. Many have suggested that the ICJ should have the power of judicial review over the Security Council's actions to ensure that they are consistent with the UN Charter and other instruments of international law.


Key Documents | Articles

Key Documents

The Security Council & the Rule of Law

This article considers whether the Security Council is subject to international law, including the Charter. The President of the World Court (ICJ), Mohammed Bedjaoui, comments.

The "Powers of Appreciation": Who is the Ultimate Guardian of UN Legality? (July 1992)

Professor Thomas M. Franck tries to define the ICJ's evolving powers of judicial review and draws some interesting parallels with the American legal system.



Human Rights Take a Back Seat to Sovereignty (February 3, 2012)

On June 29, 1944, German troops murdered 250 Italian civilians.  In 2008, an Italian court ruled that Germany needed to pay reparations to the victims’ families. The decision, however, was overruled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ upheld the principle of foreign state immunity on human rights cases and ruled that individuals have no right to seek reparations. What this means is that in the future, Iraqi, Afghani, and Ethiopian victims of human rights abusers from foreign nations will not be able to obtain legal justice through international law. (Spiegel)


Thai-Cambodian Troops ‘Must Leave Preah Vihear Temple’ (July 18, 2011)

The International Court of Justice ruled that both Thailand and Cambodia must withdraw troops from the disputed Preah Vihear temple area. While the ICJ, in 1962, awarded ownership of the Vihear temple to Cambodia, Thailand and Cambodia have been fighting over the ownership of the surrounding area. In order to end this conflict, it is important that both countries establish a demilitarized zone around the temple and engage in reconciliation talks.

The Lasting Effects of Humberto Leal Garcia’s Execution (July 8, 2011)

On July 8, 2011, the US state of Texas violated international law by executing Mexican national  Humberto Leal Garcia. The execution took place after the US Supreme Court and Texas State Governor, Rick Perry, ignored appeals from President Obama, former President Bush, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.  In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICOJ) found that Garcia and fifty other inmates had not been offered consular assistance at the time of their arrest and ruled that the US violated the Vienna Convention of Treaties. Though the US is currently in the process of implementing the ICOJ verdict to offer consular assistance to foreign nationals into its domestic law, the Supreme Court ruled that “pending” legislations do not justify a stay of execution. The US must take active measures to provide judicial review to the forty other inmates that remain on death row in violation of their consular rights, or risk undermining future Mexico-US relations or consular assistance provided to Americans abroad.

Israel Suspends Work on Section of West Bank Barrier (May 11, 2011)

Israel has halted construction of part of the controversial West Bank barrier.  The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the barrier was illegal under international law.  Palestinian communities have also challenged the legality of the barrier in Israeli domestic courts.  Israeli authorities have, however, stated that construction has been halted due to a lack of funding and not because of these legal challenges. (Guardian)

Anna Dolidze on the ICJ Judgment in Georgia v. Russia (April 7, 2011)

The International Court of Justice ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to hear the case of Georgia v. Russian Federation.  The ruling is interesting for its application of international law.  Just as interesting, is how domestic political actors on both sides have spun the judgment to further their own agenda.  This article, by Georgian human rights lawyer Anna Dolidze, notes that both sides have claimed the ruling as a victory – demonstrating that international judicial decisions are, unavoidably, used as tools in domestic politics. (Opinio Juris)

World Court Throws out Georgia's Case Against Russia (April 1, 2011)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled it does not have jurisdiction to hear a case brought by Georgia against Russia, alleging ethnic cleansing in the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If these allegations are true, they are a serious violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. However, the Convention requires that states must first attempt negotiations before initiating judicial proceedings. The Court held that Georgia had not attempted negotiations and as such the Court could not exercise jurisdiction. This decision may impede future attempts to bring the matter before the ICJ, as it cannot be pursued in the same form a second time. (Radio Free Europe)

International Court of Justice Starts Hearings in FYR Macedonia v. Greece (March 22, 2011)

A long-running dispute between Macedonia and Greece, ostensibly over the former's use of the name Macedonia, has reached the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  The issue before the Court is whether Greece acted illegally by blocking Macedonia from joining NATO in 2008.  However, the origins of the dispute run deeper, with Greece asserting that the use of the name Macedonia is a territorial claim over a Greek region of the same name.  The ICJ case will not determine the naming dispute, which is being mediated under the auspices of the UN. (The Hague Justice Portal)


Kosovo Independence Declared Not Illegal (July 22, 2010)

The International Court of Justice has decided that Kosovo's 2008 unilateral secession from Serbia did not violate international law.  The court rejected Serbia's claim that the declaration of statehood was a violation of its territorial sovereignty, and should thus be seen as a breach of international law.  Although the ruling is non-binding, many suspect that it will impact how the international community treats Kosovo, which has been trying to earn international diplomatic regonition. (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs)


Five Years After ICJ Ruling, Israel Expands Its Illegal Wall Onto More Palestinian Land (July 2009)

In July 2004, the ICJ ruled that Israel's wall of separation in the occupied Palestinian territories was illegal and should be pulled down immediately. Five years later, two-thirds of the wall's planned route has been completed, dramatically affecting the economic and social life of Palestinian communities. Palestinian protests against the wall are systematically met with force, and despite local and international activist campaigns Israel is still ignoring the ICJ's decision. (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs)

Kosovo's Independence Declaration and the International Court of Justice (March 2, 2009)

Kosovo declared its independence on February 17, 2008 however, Serbia and other states continue to questions this independence. The International Court of Justice has therefore started an investigation on the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence under international law. This article discusses the tension between the right to self-determination and the respect for territorial integrity of states. (Balkan Insight)


Guatemala and Belize Agree to Take Border Dispute to The Hague (December 8, 2008)

Guatemala and Belize agreed on December 8, 2008 to take a century long territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Honduras maintains territorial claims on Belize, in spite of the country's official independence in 1981, and the countries cannot agree on their mutual borders. Earlier attempts to solve the dispute diplomatically through the Organization of American States have failed. (Mercopress)

World Court Clash Reopens Wounds (November 20, 2008)

Serbia threatens to bring Croatia to the ICJ for ethnic cleansing, after the same court decided in November 2008 that it will hear a Croatian claim accusing Serbia of genocide during the 1991-1995 Croatian war. Announcing that it will include all of Croatia's alleged war crimes during the 20th century, Serbia states that it wants to establish the truth for the sake of both country's future EU membership. However, NGO's fear that the World Court proceedings will only worsen relations between the two countries. (Kuwait Times)


Will Uganda Pay Up for Congo Occupation? (July 26, 2007)

Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) prepare to reach an agreement on how Kampala should compensate the DRC for plundering its resources and killing civilians during the occupation that lasted between 1996 and 2001. After the ICJ found Uganda guilty in December 2005, DRC demanded a sum of US$10 billion. The negotiations have not been finalized and international law experts warn that any compensation is almost impossible to implement. Godfrey Wanzira, a Ugandan lawyer, believes that Uganda can easily prolong the process by appealing, and "DRC officials may well suspect that Kampala will never pay reparations." (Institute for War and Peace Reporting)

Parts of West African Corruption Case Can Be Judged By World Court, Judges Say (May 24, 2007)

The International Court of Justice will adjudicate on parts of a corruption case between Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The dispute is over the arrest and expulsion of Guinean entrepreneur Ahmadou Sadio Diallo in 1996 in the DRC following a court decision which required Congolese oil companies to pay Diallo millions of dollars. Guinea accuses the DRC of accepting bribes from the oil companies to expel Diallo from the country. DRC maintains that it should not be held responsible for former corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's actions. Moreover, the US$36 billion that Guinea is demanding would be a heavy burden on the DRC economy. (International Herald Tribune)

Genocide Court Ruled for Serbia without Seeing Full War Archive (April 9, 2007)

The International Court of Justice allowed Serbia to withhold parts of its military records, leaving out key material that, according to some legal experts and human rights groups, could have proven Belgrade's complicity in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Serbia successfully argued its case on the grounds of "national security," with one lawyer saying "every country will do everything possible to protect the state." This New York Times article suggests in a similar vein that the ICJ's deal with Belgrade reflects the world court's reluctance to challenge a country's sovereignty.

Timid Justice (February 28, 2007)

"International law [has] yet to come to grips with the notion of a criminal state," declares this Slate piece. The article suggests that by absolving Serbia of complicity in the Bosnian genocide, the International Court of Justice shied away from making a bold and authoritative ruling, for fear of "offending" Serbian sovereignty. But the author concedes that the complex legal definition of genocide constrained the ICJ to some extent to choose "the least invasive remedy."

The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and Genocide (February 28, 2007)

This openDemocracy piece denounces what the author calls the International Court of Justice's denial of "the genocidal character" of Serbia's campaign of violence against non-Serbs in the early-1990s Balkan conflict. The author charges that based on its "narrow understanding" of genocide, the world court failed to fully determine Serbia's role in the systematic mass killings, "despite overwhelming evidence." The article concludes therefore that the ICJ's binding ruling offers little justice to Bosnian survivors of the war.

ICJ Bosnia Ruling Sets Important Precedents (February 28, 2007)

In the historic case between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, the International Court of Justice ruled for the first time that a state – and not just individuals – can be responsible for acts of genocide. Additionally, the landmark ruling drew attention to the legal challenges of proving "specific intent" to destroy an entire group and of distinguishing between genocide and other mass killings. Citing a lack of evidence backing such intent, the world court "cleared" the Serbian government of committing genocide during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. (Radio France Europe/Radio Liberty)

UN Court Gives Landmark Ruling on Bosnian Genocide (February 26, 2007)

Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have ruled that while genocide did indeed occur during the 1992-1995 war in the Balkans, Serbia does not bear direct responsibility for the atrocities, as the Bosnian government has charged. However, the 16-judge panel concluded that Belgrade had violated international law by failing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre and by not earnestly committing to capturing high-profile fugitives. While the ICJ's judgment clears Serbia's government of complicity in the genocide, the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia continues in its quest to bring alleged perpetrators of the war crimes to justice. (Agence France Presse)


The Top UN Court Is Still Short of Vital Law Clerks 60 Years after Its Founding (October 27, 2006)

As the number of courts handling international disputes grows, so too does the burden of providing enough resources to maintain the high legal and operational standards in each one. While at tribunals like the International Criminal Court each judge has a law clerk, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) faces a serious shortage of assistance. Given the increasing number of "fact-intensive" cases, such a deficiency can compromise the service that the top UN court awards its clients, says ICJ president Rosalyn Higgins. (UN News)

UN Court Says Uruguay Can Proceed with Mills (July 13, 2006)

In May 2006, Argentina called on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule against Uruguay's plan to build pulp mills on the river bordering the two nations. The Argentine government disputes the environmental impact of the construction project and accuses Uruguay of violating a 1975 bilateral agreement on the river. The ICJ has denied Argentina's request to stop construction but will evaluate the potential risks of the pulp plants once operations begin. (Associated Press)

Court Still Weighing Genocide Case from Milosevic Era (June 18, 2006)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has yet to tackle its "most complex case" dealing with genocide rather than the usual disputes over sovereignty, territories and diplomatic relations. Divided over the legal definition of genocide, experts anticipate the Court's interpretation of events that took place during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. An ICJ ruling in favor of Bosnia in the country's case against Serbia "would implicate the entire Milosevic government." (New York Times)

Nigeria Agrees Bakassi Handover (June 13, 2006)

UN-mediated negotiations have brought the border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon to an end. The accord stipulates a transition period for the withdrawal of Nigerian administration and military forces from the oil-rich and largely-Nigerian populated Bakassi peninsula. Although previous agreements, in accordance with a 2002 International Court of Justice ruling to cede the territory to Cameroon, have fallen through, mediators believe that this deal reflects a "great achievement in conflict prevention." (BBC)

World Court Judges Deliberate in 13-Year-Old Genocide Trial of Serbia (May 9, 2006)

Judges will begin deliberations on whether the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has the power to rule in Bosnia's landmark genocide case against Serbia. Despite acknowledging that Bosnia suffered gravely, Serbia refuses to accept responsibility for atrocities committed during the 1992-95 war. Bosnia's advocates argue accountability will allow for a move towards "true peace," while Serbia's representatives point out that anything other than reconciliation might inflame tensions between the two states. (Associated Press)

World Court Marks 60th Anniversary, as Its Case-Load Gets Heavier and Tougher (April 11, 2006)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) faces a more challenging and heavy case-load than any time in its history. The Israeli security barrier in the West Bank case and Bosnian genocide allegations against Serbia demonstrate that the ICJ's has become "more confident of its jurisdiction." ICJ President Rosalyn Higgins states that the increasing case-load signifies the growing trust developing nations have placed in the court. (Associated Press)

A Nation on Trial for its Past (March 6, 2006)

The Serbia and Montenegro genocide trial at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will have far-reaching political consequences. According to Serbian leaders, "raking over the coals of the past" will have a negative effect on future relations in the Balkans. But Bosnia wants the case to establish an unchallengeable account of the conflict. Commentators affirm that the ICJ will establish a precedent for holding the state responsible for human rights violations. (Christian Science Monitor)

Serbia and Montenegro on Trial for Genocide (February 24, 2006)

The International Court of Justice will hear Bosnia's case of genocide against Serbia Montenegro. Bosnia however faces difficulty in proving state responsibility for such a complex crime. This Institute of War and Peace Reporting extensive investigation details the Bosnia's case against Serbia, dicusses issues of jurisdiction and looks at the broader consequences of a ruling in Bosnia's favor. The political stigma for Belgrade will be significant, but other commentators believe a finding for Bosnia will be key to future friendly relations between the two nations.


Blunt Edge of UN's Sword of Justice (December 28, 2005)

In a December 2005 landmark ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Uganda liable for violating the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) territorial integrity between 1998 and 2003. The ICJ ordered Uganda to make substantial financial amends to the DRC for humanitarian wrongs that took place during the occupation. The author draws comparisons to the invasion and occupation of Iraq but does not believe a similar Iraqi claim is foreseeable given the ICJ's limited powers of enforcement and jurisdiction. (East African)

We Are No Longer Able to See the Sun Set (July 7, 2005)

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared that Israel's wall was illegal. A year later, this author argues that although Israeli authorities continue to deny ICJ jurisdiction, the Court's decision provides an important framework for the international community to develop political, economic and diplomatic pressures on Israel, and also offers a legal voice to the sovereignty-lacking Palestinian nation. (Al-Ahram)

Rwanda in Court over Congo Claims (July 4, 2005)

Despite Rwanda's opposition to proceedings, the International Court of Justice begins hearing Kinshasa's allegations of "massive human rights violations" by Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil. The Democratic Republic of Congo has filed a similar complaint against Uganda, but neither trial seems likely to come to a verdict in the near future. (BBC)

Congo Seeks Reparations From Uganda At World Court (April 11, 2005)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has taken Uganda before the International Court of Justice to demand compensation for Kampala's involvement in human rights abuses, looting and property destruction during the country's civil war. Uganda has filed a counterclaim accusing the DRC of attacking Ugandan citizens and diplomatic buildings in Kinshasa. The proceedings will likely take years before completion. (Reuters)

US Quits Pact Used in Capital Cases (March 10, 2005)

A 1963 US-proposed protocol to the Vienna Convention handed authority to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over cases of jailed foreign citizens who contended they had been denied access to a diplomat. The US was the first country to employ the protocol, over the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. But the Bush administration has backed out of the agreement, saying it granted the ICJ power over the justice system that they "had not anticipated." Critics say the move could weaken citizens' protections in the US and abroad, and signal that the US will no longer "bow to the ICJ." (Washington Post)

US Says It Has Withdrawn From World Judicial Body (March 10, 2005)

The US has announced its withdrawal from an optional protocol that gives the International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction to hear disputes involving foreign nationals sentenced to death in the US. Legal commentators have labeled the withdrawal as "counterproductive," "unbecoming" and an indication of the administration's "general hostility to international institutions." (New York Times)

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