What Is the International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)sometimes called the World Court, is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). The ICJ's primary functions are to settle international legal disputes submitted by states (contentious cases) and give advisory opinions on legal issues referred to it by the UN (advisory proceedings). Through its opinions and rulings, it serves as a source of international law.


The first permanent institution established for the purpose of settling international disputes was the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which was created by the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. Initiated by Russian Czar Nicholas II, the conference involved all the world's major powers, as well as several smaller states, resulted in the first multilateral treaties concerned with the conduct of warfare.

Among these was the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, which set forth the institutional and procedural framework for arbitrage proceedings, which would take place in The Hague, Netherlands. Although the proceedings would be supported by a permanent bureau whose functions would be equivalent to that of a secretariat or court registry the arbitrators would be appointed by the disputing states from a larger pool provided by each member of the Convention. The PCA was established in 1900 and began proceedings in 1902.


The International Court of Justice is composed of fifteen judges elected to nine-year terms by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council from a list of people nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The election process is set out in Articles 4–19 of the ICJ Statute. Elections are staggered, with five judges elected every three years to make sure there is continuity within the court. If a judge dies in office, the practice has generally been to elect a judge in a special election to complete the term.

No two judges may be nationals of the same country. According to Article 9, the membership of the court is supposed to represent the "main forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems of the world". Essentially, that has meant common law, civil law and socialist law (now post-communist law).

Appointment and Removal Of Judges

There is an informal understanding that the seats will be distributed by geographic regions so that there are five seats for Western countries, three for African states (including one judge of francophone civil law, one of Anglophone common law and one Arab), two for Eastern European states, three for Asian states and two for Latin American and Caribbean states. For most of the court's history, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have always had a judge serving, thereby occupying three of the Western seats, one of the Asian seats and one of the Eastern European seats.

 Exceptions have been China not having a judge on the court from 1967 to 1985, during which time it did not put forward a candidate, and British judge Sir Christopher Greenwood being withdrawn as a candidate for election for a second nine-year term on the bench in 2017, leaving no judges from the United Kingdom on the court. Greenwood had been supported by the UN Security Council but failed to get a majority in the UN General Assembly. Indian judge Dalveer Bhandari instead took the seat.

Article 6 of the Statute provides that all judges should be "elected regardless of their nationality among persons of high moral character" who are either qualified for the highest judicial office in their home states or known as lawyers with sufficient competence in international law. Judicial independence is dealt with specifically in Articles 16–18. Judges of the International Court of Justice are not able to hold any other post or act as counsel. In practice, members of the court have their own interpretation of these rules and allow them to be involved in outside arbitration and hold professional posts as long as there is no conflict of interest. 

A judge can be dismissed only by a unanimous vote of the other members of the court. Despite these provisions, the independence of judges of the International Court of Justice has been questioned. For example, during the Nicaragua case, the United States issued a communiqué suggesting that it could not present sensitive material to the court because of the presence of judges from Eastern bloc states.

Ad hoc judges

Article 31 of the statute sets out a procedure whereby ad hoc judges sit on contentious cases before the court. The system allows any party to a contentious case (if it otherwise does not have one of that party's nationals sitting on the court) to select one additional person to sit as a judge on that case only. It is thus possible that as many as seventeen judges may sit on one case.

The system may seem strange when compared with domestic court processes, but its purpose is to encourage states to submit cases. For example, if a state knows that it will have a judicial officer who can take part in deliberation and offer other judges local knowledge and an understanding of the state's perspective, it may be more willing to submit to the jurisdiction of the court. Although this system does not sit well with the judicial nature of the body, it is usually of little practical consequence. Ad hoc judges usually (but not always) vote in favour of the state that appointed them and thus cancels each other out.


Judges may deliver joint judgments or give their own separate opinions. Decisions and advisory opinions are by a majority, and, in the event of an equal division, the President's vote becomes decisive, which occurred in the Legality of the Use by a State of Nuclear Weapons in Armed Conflict (Opinion requested by WHO), [1996] ICJ Reports 66. Judges may also deliver separate dissenting opinions.

Cases before the ICJ are resolved in one of three ways:

 (1) they can be settled by the parties at any time during the proceedings;

(2) a state can discontinue the proceedings and withdraw at any point; or

 (3) the court can deliver a verdict. 

The International Court of Justice settles disputes in accordance with international law as reflected in international conventions, international custom, general principles of law recognized by civilized nations, judicial decisions, and writings of the most highly qualified experts on international law.

The International Court of Justice, despite functioning away from the limelight in most cases, has great relevance in legal proceedings across the globe. They are endowed with serving as the legal and ethical conscience of the UN, an organization created with the intention of maintaining peace and order, and an understanding among the nations of the world. 

- Deekshitha Jain

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