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Everyday Global: What is the International Court of Justice

Ukraine has filed an application before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), instituting proceedings against the Russian Federation concerning “a dispute…relating to the interpretation, application and fulfilment of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (the “Genocide Convention”).

Ukraine has accused Russia of falsely claiming that “acts of genocide have occurred in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts of Ukraine”, and of using that as a pretext to recognise the independence of these regions and of going to war against Ukraine.

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International court

The ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and began work in April 1946.

The court is the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), which was brought into being through, and by, the League of Nations, and which held its inaugural sitting at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, in February 1922.

After World War II, the League of Nations and PCIJ were replaced by the United Nations and ICJ respectively. The PCIJ was formally dissolved in April 1946, and its last president, Judge José Gustavo Guerrero of El Salvador, became the first president of the ICJ.

The first case, which was brought by the UK against Albania and concerned incidents in the Corfu channel — the narrow strait of the Ionian Sea between the Greek island of Corfu and Albania on the European mainland — was submitted in May 1947.

Seat and role

Like the PCIJ, the ICJ is based at the Peace Palace in The Hague. It is the only one of the six principal organs of the UN that is not located in New York City. (The other five organs are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, and the Secretariat.)

According to the ICJ’s own description, its role is “to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies”. The court “as a whole must represent the main forms of civilization and the principal legal systems of the world”.

The judges of the court are assisted by a Registry, the administrative organ of the ICJ. English and French are the ICJ’s official languages.

All members of the UN are automatically parties to the ICJ statute, but this does not automatically give the ICJ jurisdiction over disputes involving them. The ICJ gets jurisdiction only if both parties consent to it.

The judgment of the ICJ is final and technically binding on the parties to a case. There is no provision of appeal; it can at the most, be subject to interpretation or, upon the discovery of a new fact, revision.

However, the ICJ has no way to ensure compliance of its orders, and its authority is derived from the willingness of countries to abide by them.

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Judges of the court

The ICJ has 15 judges who are elected to nine-year terms by the UN General Assembly and Security Council, which vote simultaneously but separately. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the votes in both bodies, a requirement that sometimes necessitates multiple rounds of voting. Elections are held at the UNHQ in New York during the annual UNGA meeting.

A third of the court is elected every three years. The judges elected at the triennial election commence their term of office on February 6 of the following year. The president and vice-president of the court are elected for three-year terms by secret ballot. Judges are eligible for re-election.

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Four Indians have been members of the ICJ so far. Justice Dalveer Bhandari, former judge of the Supreme Court, has been serving at the ICJ since 2012. Former Chief Justice of India R S Pathak served from 1989-91, and former Chief Election Commissioner of India Nagendra Singh from 1973-88. Singh was also president of the court from 1985-88, and vice-president from 1976-79. Before him, Sir Benegal Rau, who was an advisor to the Constituent Assembly, was a member of the ICJ from 1952-53.

India at the ICJ

India has been a party to a case at the ICJ on six occasions, four of which have involved Pakistan. They are: Right of Passage over Indian Territory (Portugal v. India, culminated 1960); Appeal Relating to the Jurisdiction of the ICAO Council (India v. Pakistan, culminated 1972); Trial of Pakistani Prisoners of War (Pakistan v. India, culminated 1973); Aerial Incident of 10 August 1999 (Pakistan v. India, culminated 2000); Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament (Marshall Islands v. India, culminated 2016); and (Kulbhushan) Jadhav (India v. Pakistan, culminated 2019).

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