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Q&A: International Court of Justice

View of the courtroom in 1985
The 15 judges come from different states
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) - sometimes known as the world court - is a permanent court of the United Nations and is based in The Hague.

It began work in 1946, when it replaced the Permanent Court of International Justice that had functioned since 1922.

The BBC News website explains the way the ICJ operates and how it differs from other courts.

What is the ICJ designed to do?

The ICJ fulfils two functions:

  • It makes rulings on disputes, submitted by the states party

  • It gives non-binding advisory opinions when asked to do so by UN organs and agencies - like the General Assembly request in December 2003 on the legality of Israel's West Bank barrier.

The Court is composed of 15 judges - of different nationalities - elected to nine-year terms of office by the UN General Assembly and Security Council.

The members of the ICJ do not represent their governments but are independent magistrates. The current ICJ President is Rosalyn Higgins of the UK.

Who can take a dispute to the ICJ?

Only internationally-recognised states may apply to and appear before the ICJ, namely the 192 members of the United Nations.

The court can hear a case brought before it only where the states concerned have accepted its jurisdiction.

A case begins with parties filing and exchanging written submissions, followed by an oral phase consisting of public hearings.

Are ICJ decisions obligatory?

After hearing oral submissions, the court deliberates in camera - in private session - and then delivers its judgment at a public sitting.

The judgment is final and without appeal.

If one of the states involved fails to comply with it, the other party may take the issue to the UN Security Council
If one of the states involved fails to comply with it, the other party may take the issue to the UN Security Council. In a way, this means that a dispute can remain unresolved if one of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council decides to block further action.

Since 1946, the court has delivered 93 judgments on disputes ranging from frontiers issues and territorial sovereignty to the non-use of force, non-interference in the internal affairs of states, hostage-taking, the right of asylum and nationality.

What about advisory opinions?

The court's advisory opinions are consultative in character - not binding on the requesting bodies.

Since it was established, the ICJ has given 25 advisory opinions ranging from UN membership and reparation for injuries suffered in the service of the UN to the status of human rights rapporteurs and the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons.

Has the ICJ been successful?

The ICJ has a chequered history. It was set up in the optimistic days after World War II but has failed to develop into what its founders envisaged - a forum for solving international disputes.

This is largely because governments have not entrusted it with decision-making in their own disputes.

The ICJ is the only court to rule on state-to-state disputes, and cannot prosecute individuals
In 1984, the United States walked out of a case brought by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas had complained about the activities of the US-supported Contra rebels but the Reagan administration was angered by the court's insistence that it had jurisdiction and refused to take any further part in the proceedings.

In 1977, Argentina refused to accept a ruling, which gave Chile possession of islands in the Beagle Channel. Only the intervention of the Pope prevented war.

How does the ICJ differ from other international courts

This is the only court to assess and rule on state-to-state disputes - it cannot prosecute individuals.

The ICJ is not to be confused with the International Criminal Court (ICC) - also based at The Hague - which was set up to prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for the worst crimes - genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes - committed anywhere in the world.

The international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda do try individuals for crimes against humanity, but only those committed in those territories over a limited time.

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