What is the International Court of Justice?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the judicial arm of the United Nations (UN). Established in June 1945 by the UN Charter, the ICJ plays an important role in disputes between member countries. The court has the power to both settle disputes and provide advisory opinions; however, its power is somewhat limited as few member states are pleased with the idea of being subject to international, rather than national laws. In some cases, the ICJ has come into direct conflict with the UN Security Council, which has the ability to veto decisions of the court.

The flag flown by the Netherlands, where the ICJ is.
The flag flown by the Netherlands, where the ICJ is.

The Netherlands is the official home of the International Court of Justice. The only major UN operation not housed in the United States, the ICJ operates out of the famed Peace Palace in The Hague. The Court consists of 15 judges who serve terms of nine years with two opportunities for reelection. The ICJ holds elections on a rotating basis to provide consistency, with one-third of the judges up for re-election or retirement every three years. No concurrently serving judges may be of the same nationality.

International law is a continuously evolving system.
International law is a continuously evolving system.

The function of the International Court of Justice is to provide mediation between disagreeing nations, and to help sort out complex legal problems that have an international effect. Some experts suggest that the court is most effective when managing issues such as border delineation and water rights. From 1947 to 2010, the court entered only 149 cases onto its books.

There are varying opinions on the usefulness of the International Court of Justice throughout the legal world. While technically the judgment of the court is supposed to be binding, it lies within the power of the UN Security Council to oversee consequences for failing to implement court orders. Since the five permanent members of the Security Council each retain veto power over court decisions, any attempt to judge against these members can result in an immediate veto. The United States exercised veto power in the instance of Nicaragua v. United States, when the court ordered that the US pay reparations for illegally assisting in the overthrow of Nicaragua's government. The ability of Security Council members to simply overturn a verdict they do not agree with makes the ICJ appear to critics as only a token puppet version of a judicial entity.

International law is a continuously evolving system; each time a new case comes up, it may be dealing with laws that are effectively not yet written. The International Court of Justice is bound to abide by existing treaties and sources of international law, but at the same time must frequently rely on a sense of fairness and justice in order to get anything done where no laws yet exist. This type of judgment is known as ex aequo et bono, and is the source of much contention, as it relies on the wisdom of the judges rather than actual statutes.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Actually, the International Court of Justice was not very unique when it was established. The predecessor of the United Nations- the League of Nations- had the Permanent Court of International Justice, very similar to the ICJ of today.

Unfortunately, they seem to share a similar fate as well. The PCIJ also did not see many cases during its existence. The ICJ clearly also has issues with voting and enforcement of decisions. Maybe it is time for the renewal of the court or a replacement by a new judicial institution.


@burcidi-- The UN did assist with the statute of the ICC, but the ICC is not a part of the UN like the ICJ is. It is a completely separate entity.

Of course, the other major difference is in their area of concern. The ICC deals with crime against humanity such as genocide; not issues between countries.

And about their relations with the U.S.- The U.S. is a member of the UN, and has to take part, vote and defend itself in ICJ cases. But it is not active in the ICC at all.


There is also something called the International Criminal Court. It sounds similar to the International Court of Justice. What is the difference between the two?

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