International Court of Justice
Cour internationale de justice
International Court of Justice Seal.svg
International Court of Justice Seal
Established1945 (PCIJ dissolved in 1946)
LocationThe Hague, Netherlands
Coordinates52°05′11.8″N 4°17′43.8″E / 52.086611°N 4.295500°E / 52.086611; 4.295500Coordinates: 52°05′11.8″N 4°17′43.8″E / 52.086611°N 4.295500°E / 52.086611; 4.295500
Authorized by
Judge term length9 years
Number of positions15
CurrentlyAbdulqawi Yusuf
Since6 February 2018
Lead position ends5 February 2021
Vice President
CurrentlyXue Hanqin
Since6 February 2018
Lead position ends5 February 2021

The International Court of Justice (ICJ),[1] sometimes called the World Court, is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations (UN). It settles disputes between states and gives advisory opinions on international legal issues referred to it by the UN. Its opinions and rulings serve as sources of international law.

The ICJ is the successor of the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), which was established by the League of Nations in 1920. After the Second World War, both the League and the PCIJ were succeeded by the United Nations and ICJ, respectively. The Statute of the ICJ draws heavily from that of its predecessor, and the latter's decisions remain valid. All members of the UN are party to the ICJ Statute.

The ICJ comprises a panel of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and Security Council for nine-year terms. The court is seated in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, making it the only principal UN organ not located in New York City.[2] Its official working languages are English and French.


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.[3] Among these was the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, which set forth the institutional and procedural framework for arbitral 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.

A second Hague Peace Conference in 1907, which involved most of the world's sovereign states, revised the Convention and enhanced the rules governing arbitral proceedings before the PCA. During this conference, the United States, Great Britain and Germany submitted a joint proposal for a permanent court whose judges would serve full-time. As the delegates could not agree as to how the judges would be selected, the matter was temporarily shelved pending an agreement to be adopted at a later convention.

The Hague Peace Conferences, and the ideas that emerged therefrom, influenced the creation of the Central American Court of Justice, which was established in 1908 as one of the earliest regional judicial bodies. Various plans and proposals were made between 1911 and 1919 for the establishment of an international judicial tribunal, which would not be realized into the formation of a new international system following the First World War.

The Permanent Court of International Justice

The unprecedented bloodshed of the First World War led to the creation of the League of Nations, established by the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as the first worldwide intergovernmental organization aimed at maintaining peace and collective security. Article 14 League's Covenant called for the establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), which would be responsible for adjudicating any international dispute submitted to it by the contesting parties, as well as to provide an advisory opinion upon any dispute or question referred to it by the League of Nations.

In December 1920, following several drafts and debates, the Assembly of the League unanimously adopted the Statute of the PCIJ, which was signed and ratified the following year by a majority of members. Among other things, the new Statute resolved the contentious issues of selecting judges by providing that the judges be elected by both the Council and the Assembly of the League concurrently but independently. The makeup of the PCIJ would reflect the "main forms of civilization and the principal legal systems of the world”.[4] The PCIJ would be permanently placed at the Peace Palace in The Hague, alongside Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The PCIJ represented a major innovation in international jurisprudence in several ways:

  • Unlike previous international arbitral tribunals, it was a permanent body governed by its own statutory provisions and rules of procedure
  • It had a permanent registry that served as a liaison with governments and international bodies;
  • Its proceedings were largely public, including pleadings, oral arguments, and all documentary evidence;
  • It was accessible to all states and could be declared by states to have compulsory jurisdiction over disputes;
  • The PCIJ Statute was the first to list sources of law it would draw upon, which in turn became sources of international law
  • Judges were more representative of the world and its legal systems than any prior international judicial body.
  • As a permanent body, the PCIJ would, over time, make a series decisions and rulings that would develop international law

Unlike the ICJ, the PCIJ was not part of the League, nor were members of the League automatically a party to its Statute. The United States, which played a key role in both the second Hague Peace Conference and the Paris Peace Conference, was notably not a member of the League, although several of its nationals served as judges of the Court.

From its first session in 1922 until 1940, the PCIJ dealt with 29 interstate disputes and issued 27 advisory opinions. The Court's widespread acceptance was reflected by the fact that several hundred international treaties and agreements conferred jurisdiction upon it over specified categories of disputes. In addition to helping resolve several serious international disputes, the PCIJ helped clarify several ambiguities in international law that contributed to its development.

The United States played a major role in setting up the World Court but never joined.[5] Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt all supported membership, but it was impossible to get a 2/3 majority in the Senate for a treaty.[6]

Establishment of the International Court of Justice

Following a peak of activity in 1933, the PCIJ began to decline in its activities due to the growing international tension and isolationism that characterized the era. The Second World War effectively put an end to the Court, which held its last public session in December 1939 and issued its last orders in February 1940. In 1942 the United States and United Kingdom jointly declared support for establishing or re-establishing an international court after the war, and in 1943, the U.K. chaired a panel of jurists from around the world, the "Inter-Allied Committee", to discuss the matter. Its 1944 report recommended that:

  • The statute of any new international court should be based on that of the PCIJ;
  • The new court should retain an advisory jurisdiction;
  • Acceptance of the new court's jurisdiction should be voluntary;
  • The court should deal only with judicial and not political matters

Several months later, a conference of the major Allied Powers—China, the USSR, the U.K., and the U.S.—issued a joint declaration recognizing the necessity “of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving States, and open to membership by all such States, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security”.[7]

The following Allied conference at Dumbarton Oaks, in the United States, published a proposal in October 1944 that called for the establishment of an intergovernmental organization that would include an international court. A meeting was subsequently convened in Washington, D.C. in April 1945, involving 44 jurists from around the world to draft a statute for the proposed court. The draft statute was substantially similar to that of the PCIJ, and it was questioned whether a new court should even be created. During the San Francisco Conference, which took place from 25 April to 26 June 1945 and involved 50 countries, it was decided that an entirely new court should be established as a principal organ of the new United Nations. The statute of this court would form an integral part of the United Nations Charter, which, to maintain continuity, expressly held that the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was based upon that of the PCIJ.

Consequently, the PCIJ convened for the last time in October 1945 and resolved to transfer its archives to its successor, which would take its place at the Peace Palace. The judges of the PCIJ all resigned on 31 January 1946, with the election of the first members of the ICJ taking place the following February at the First Session of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. In April 1946, the PCIJ was formally dissolved, and the ICJ, in its first meeting, elected as President José Gustavo Guerrero of El Salvador, who had served as the last President of the PCIJ. The Court also appointed members of its Registry, drawn largely from that of the PCIJ, and held an inaugural public sitting later that month.

The first case was submitted in May 1947 by the United Kingdom against Albania concerning incidents in the Corfu Channel.


The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, seat of the ICJ

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.[8]

The court's workload covers a wide range of judicial activity. After the court ruled that the United States's covert war against Nicaragua was in violation of international law (Nicaragua v. United States), the United States withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction in 1986 to accept the court's jurisdiction only on a discretionary basis.[9] Chapter XIV of the United Nations Charter authorizes 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 used in the Nicaragua case.[10]


Public hearing at the ICJ.

The ICJ 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 ensure continuity within the court. Should a judge die 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).

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.[11] For most of the court's history, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (France, USSR, 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.[12] Greenwood had been supported by the UN Security Council but failed to get a majority in the UN General Assembly.[12] Indian judge Dalveer Bhandari instead took the seat.[12]

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 ICJ 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.[13] Despite these provisions, the independence of ICJ judges 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 the Soviet bloc.[14]

Judges may deliver joint judgments or give their own separate opinions. Decisions and advisory opinions are by 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.

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 participate 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 cancel each other out.[15]


Generally, the court sits as full bench, but in the last fifteen years, it has on occasion sat as a chamber. Articles 26–29 of the statute allow the court to form smaller chambers, usually 3 or 5 judges, to hear cases. Two types of chambers are contemplated by Article 26: firstly, chambers for special categories of cases, and second, the formation of ad hoc chambers to hear particular disputes. In 1993, a special chamber was established, under Article 26(1) of the ICJ statute, to deal specifically with environmental matters (although it has never been used).

Ad hoc chambers are more frequently convened. For example, chambers were used to hear the Gulf of Maine Case (Canada/US).[16] In that case, the parties made clear they would withdraw the case unless the court appointed judges to the chamber acceptable to the parties. Judgments of chambers may have either less authority than full Court judgments or diminish the proper interpretation of universal international law informed by a variety of cultural and legal perspectives. On the other hand, the use of chambers might encourage greater recourse to the court and thus enhance international dispute resolution.[17]

Current composition

As of 22 June 2018, the composition of the court is as follows:[18][19]

Name Nationality Position Term began Term ends
Abdulqawi Yusuf  Somalia Presidenta 2009 2027
Xue Hanqin  China Vice-Presidenta 2010 2021
Peter Tomka  Slovakia Member 2003 2021
Ronny Abraham  France Member 2005 2027
Mohamed Bennouna  Morocco Member 2006 2024
Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade     Brazil Member 2009 2027
Joan Donoghue  United States Member 2010 2024
Giorgio Gaja  Italy Member 2012 2021
Julia Sebutinde  Uganda Member 2012 2021
Dalveer Bhandari  India Member 2012 2027
Patrick Lipton Robinson  Jamaica Member 2015 2024
James Crawford  Australia Member 2015 2024
Kirill Gevorgian  Russia Member 2015 2024
Nawaf Salam  Lebanon Member 2018 2027
Yuji Iwasawa  Japan Member 2018 2021
Philippe Gautier  Belgium Registrar 2019 2026
a 2018–2021.


# President Start End Country
1 José Gustavo Guerrero 1946 1949  El Salvador
2 Jules Basdevant 1949 1952  France
3 Arnold McNair 1952 1955  United Kingdom
4 Green Hackworth 1955 1958  United States
5 Helge Klæstad 1958 1961  Norway
6 Bohdan Winiarski 1961 1964  Poland
7 Percy Spender 1964 1967  Australia
8 José Bustamante y Rivero 1967 1970  Peru
9 Muhammad Zafarullah Khan 1970 1973  Pakistan
10 Manfred Lachs 1973 1976  Poland
11 Eduardo Jiménez de Aréchaga 1976 1979  Uruguay
12 Humphrey Waldock 1979 1981  United Kingdom
13 Taslim Elias 1982 1985  Nigeria
14 Nagendra Singh 1985 1988  India
15 José Ruda 1988 1991  Argentina
16 Robert Jennings 1991 1994  United Kingdom
17 Mohammed Bedjaoui 1994 1997  Algeria
18 Stephen Schwebel 1997 2000  United States
19 Gilbert Guillaume 2000 2003  France
20 Shi Jiuyong 2003 2006  China
21 Rosalyn Higgins 2006 2009  United Kingdom
22 Hisashi Owada 2009 2012  Japan
23 Peter Tomka 2012 2015  Slovakia
24 Ronny Abraham 2015 2018  France
25 Abdulqawi Yusuf 2018 2021  Somalia


  Parties upon becoming a UN member
  Parties prior to joining the UN under Article 93
  UN observer states that are not parties

As stated in Article 93 of the UN Charter, all 193 UN members are automatically parties to the court's statute.[20] Non-UN members may also become parties to the court's statute under the Article 93(2) procedure. For example, before becoming a UN member state, Switzerland used this procedure in 1948 to become a party, and Nauru became a party in 1988.[21] Once a state is a party to the court's statute, it is entitled to participate in cases before the court. However, being a party to the statute does not automatically give the court jurisdiction over disputes involving those parties. The issue of jurisdiction is considered in the three types of ICJ cases: contentious issues, incidental jurisdiction, and advisory opinions.[22]

Contentious issues

First gathering after Second World War, Dutch newsreel from 1946

In contentious cases (adversarial proceedings seeking to settle a dispute), the ICJ produces a binding ruling between states that agree to submit to the ruling of the court. Only states may be parties in contentious cases. Individuals, corporations, component parts of a federal state, NGOs, UN organs and self-determination groups are excluded from direct participation in cases although the court may receive information from public international organizations. That does not preclude non-state interests from being the subject of proceedings if a state brings the case against another. For example, a state may, in cases of "diplomatic protection", bring a case on behalf of one of its nationals or corporations.[23]

Jurisdiction is often a crucial question for the court in contentious cases. (See Procedure below.) The key principle is that the ICJ has jurisdiction only on the basis of consent. Article 36 outlines four bases on which the court's jurisdiction may be founded:

  • First, 36(1) provides that parties may refer cases to the court (jurisdiction founded on "special agreement" or "compromis"). This method is based on explicit consent rather than true compulsory jurisdiction. It is, perhaps, the most effective basis for the court's jurisdiction because the parties concerned have a desire for the dispute to be resolved by the court and are thus more likely to comply with the court's judgment.
  • Second, 36(1) also gives the court jurisdiction over "matters specifically provided for... in treaties and conventions in force". Most modern treaties contain a compromissory clause, providing for dispute resolution by the ICJ.[24] Cases founded on compromissory clauses have not been as effective as cases founded on special agreement since a state may have no interest in having the matter examined by the court and may refuse to comply with a judgment. For example, during the Iran hostage crisis, Iran refused to participate in a case brought by the US based on a compromissory clause contained in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and did not comply with the judgment.[25] Since the 1970s, the use of such clauses has declined. Many modern treaties set out their own dispute resolution regime, often based on forms of arbitration.[26]
  • Third, Article 36(2) allows states to make optional clause declarations accepting the court's jurisdiction. The label "compulsory" sometimes placed on Article 36(2) jurisdiction is misleading since declarations by states are voluntary. Furthermore, many declarations contain reservations, such as exclusion from jurisdiction certain types of disputes ("ratione materia").[27] The principle of reciprocity may further limit jurisdiction. As of February 2011, sixty-six states had a declaration in force.[28] Of the permanent Security Council members, only the United Kingdom has a declaration. In the court's early years, most declarations were made by industrialized countries. Since the Nicaragua case, declarations made by developing countries have increased, reflecting a growing confidence in the court since the 1980s.[citation needed] Industrialized countries, however, have sometimes increased exclusions or removed their declarations in recent years. Examples include the United States, as mentioned previously, and Australia, which modified its declaration in 2002 to exclude disputes on maritime boundaries (most likely to prevent an impending challenge from East Timor, which gained their independence two months later).[29]
  • Finally, 36(5) provides for jurisdiction on the basis of declarations made under the Permanent Court of International Justice's statute. Article 37 of the Statute similarly transfers jurisdiction under any compromissory clause in a treaty that gave jurisdiction to the PCIJ.
  • In addition, the court may have jurisdiction on the basis of tacit consent (

    Until rendering a final judgment, the court has competence to order interim measures for the protection of the rights of a party to a dispute. One or both parties to a dispute may apply the ICJ for issuing interim measures. In the Frontier Dispute Case, both parties to the dispute, Burkina Faso and Mali, submitted an application to the court to indicate interim measures.[30] Incidental jurisdiction of the court derives from the Article 41 of the Statute of it.[31] Such as the final judgment, the order for interim measures of the court are binding on state parties to the dispute. The ICJ has competence to indicate interim measures only if the prima facie jurisdiction is satisfied.[citation needed]

    Advisory opinions

    Audience of the "Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo"

    An advisory opinion is a function of the court open only to specified United Nations bodies and agencies. The UN Charter grants the General Assembly or the Security Council a power to request the court to issue an advisory opinion on any legal question. Other organs of the UN rather than GA and SC may not request an advisory opinion of the ICJ unless the General Assembly authorizes them. Other organs of the UN only request an advisory opinion of the court regarding the matters falling into the scope of their activities.[32] On receiving a request, the court decides which states and organizations might provide useful information and gives them an opportunity to present written or oral statements. Advisory opinions were intended as a means by which UN agencies could seek the court's help in deciding complex legal issues that might fall under their respective mandates.

    In principle, the court's advisory opinions are only consultative in character but they are influential and widely respected. Certain instruments or regulations can provide in advance that the advisory opinion shall be specifically binding on particular agencies or states, but inherently, they are non-binding under the Statute of the Court. This non-binding character does not mean that advisory opinions are without legal effect, because the legal reasoning embodied in them reflects the court's authoritative views on important issues of international law. In arriving at them, the court follows essentially the same rules and procedures that govern its binding judgments delivered in contentious cases submitted to it by sovereign states.

    An advisory opinion derives its status and authority from the fact that it is the official pronouncement of the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.[33]

    Advisory opinions have often been controversial because the questions asked are controversial or the case was pursued as an indirect way of bringing what is really a contentious case before the court. Examples of advisory opinions can be found in the section advisory opinions in the List of International Court of Justice cases article. One such well-known advisory opinion is the Nuclear Weapons Case.

Examples of contentious cases