What is the International Court of Justice?
The Court is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It was established by the United Nations Charter, which was signed in 1945 in San Francisco (United States), and began work in 1946 in the Peace Palace, The Hague (Netherlands).
The Court, which is composed of 15 judges, has a twofold role: first, to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes between States submitted to it by them and, second, to give advisory opinions on legal matters referred to it by duly authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.
The Court's official languages are English and French.
Who may submit cases to the Court?
Only States are eligible to appear before the Court in contentious cases. At present, this essentially means the 193 Member States of the United Nations.
The Court has no jurisdiction to deal with applications from individuals, non-governmental organizations, corporations or any other private entity. It cannot provide them with legal advice or help them in their dealings with national authorities.
However, a State may take up the case of one of its nationals and invoke against another State the wrongs which its national claims to have suffered at the hands of the latter; the dispute then becomes one between States.
What differentiates the International Court of Justice from the International Criminal Court and the ad hoc international criminal tribunals?
The International Court of Justice has no jurisdiction to try individuals accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. As it is not a criminal court, it does not have a prosecutor able to initiate proceedings.
This task is the preserve of national courts, the ad hoc criminal tribunals established by the United Nations (such as the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), mandated to take over residual functions from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)) or in co-operation with it (such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon), and also of the International Criminal Court, set up under the Rome Statute.
How does the International Court of Justice differ from other international courts?
The International Court of Justice differs from the Court of Justice of the European Union (based in Luxembourg), whose role is to interpret European Community legislation uniformly and rule on its validity, as well as from the European Court of Human Rights (in Strasbourg, France) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (in San José, Costa Rica), which deal with allegations of violations of the human rights conventions under which they were set up. As well as applications from States, those three courts can entertain applications from individuals, which is not possible for the International Court of Justice.
The jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice is general and thereby differs from that of specialist international tribunals, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Lastly, the Court is not a supreme court to which national courts can turn; it does not act as a court of last resort for individuals. Nor is it an appeal court for any international tribunal. It can, however, rule on the validity of arbitral awards.
Why are some disputes between States not considered by the Court?
The Court can only hear a dispute when requested to do so by one or more States. It cannot deal with a dispute on its own initiative. Neither is it permitted, under its Statute, to investigate and rule on acts of sovereign States as it chooses.
The States involved in the dispute must also have access to the Court and have accepted its jurisdiction, in other words they must consent to the Court's considering the dispute in question. This is a fundamental principle governing the settlement of international disputes, since States are sovereign and free to choose how to resolve their disputes.
A State may manifest its consent in three ways:
- by a special agreement: two or more States with a dispute on a specific issue may agree to submit it jointly to the Court and conclude an agreement for this purpose;
- by a clause in a treaty: over 300 treaties contain clauses (known as jurisdictional clauses) by which a State party undertakes to accept the jurisdiction of the Court should a dispute arise with another State party about the interpretation or application of the treaty;
- by a unilateral declaration: the States parties to the Statute of the Court may opt to make a unilateral declaration recognizing the jurisdiction of the Court as binding with respect to any other State also accepting it as binding. This optional clause system, as it is called, has led to the creation of a group of States each of which has given the Court jurisdiction to settle any dispute that might arise between them in future. In principle, any State in this group is entitled to bring one or more other States in the group before the Court. Declarations may contain reservations limiting their duration or excluding certain categories of dispute. They are deposited by States with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Are decisions of the Court binding?
Judgments delivered by the Court (or by one of its Chambers) in disputes between States are binding upon the parties concerned. Article 94 of the United Nations Charter provides that “[e]ach Member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with the decision of [the Court] in any case to which it is a party”.
Judgments are final and without appeal. If there is a dispute about the meaning or scope of a judgment, the only possibility is for one of the parties to make a request to the Court for an interpretation. In the event of the discovery of a fact hitherto unknown to the Court which might be a decisive factor, either party may apply for revision of the judgment.
As regards advisory opinions, it is usually for the United Nations organs and specialized agencies requesting them to give effect to them or not, by whichever means they see fit.
How can I attend hearings of the Court?
The hearings of the Court are public, unless it has been decided to hold a closed hearing. For information on how to attend, please refer to the Visits pages on our website.
Representatives of the media wishing to cover the hearings must be duly accredited. For further information, please refer to the Accreditation page under “Press room”.
Is it possible to visit the Peace Palace, the seat of the Court?
The Carnegie Foundation, which owns the Peace Palace, organizes guided tours on weekdays, for which a fee is payable.
However, no tours are possible when the International Court of Justice is holding hearings or when other events are taking place in the Peace Palace.
How can I apply for a job in the Registry of the Court?
For all information concerning job vacancies, please refer to the Current vacancies page on our website.
Does the Court offer internships?
Yes. Further information on this subject can be found under Internships on our website.
Does the Court issue official certificates or other documents to individuals?
The Court issues no such documents to individuals, whether relating to the lottery, transfers of funds or certifying transactions. The Court regularly receives requests for information about documents bearing its logo or the crudely forged signature of certain senior officials. Members of the public are advised that these constitute fraud.
How to find out more about the Court
For further information on the Court, please download the Handbook of the Court (last updated in 2019).