Thursday, August 13, 2009

I SEE WHAT? A Discussion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a quick look at the International Criminal Court (ICC)

In recent postings, we have discussed the International Criminal Court (ICC), both in the context of the United States' opposition to the Court and of Attorney General Holder's pending decision regarding the appointment of an independent prosecutor. In response, some of our readers have asked about the difference between the ICC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). From a city where there seem to be more acronyms than people (especially in August), we bring you a discussion of these two courts...

In October 1943, in the midst of a devastating world war, several States spoke out for the creation of a mechanism capable of ensuring the peaceful settlement of State disputes. The United States was among the leaders of this movement and, together with China, the USSR, and the United Kingdom, issued a declaration urging the prompt establishment of “a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality” to maintain “international peace and security.” To that end, in 1945, a committee of jurists, chaired by American judge G. H. Hackworth, began to draft the statute of what would become the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Many Americans are accustomed to attitudes of national isolationism or exceptionalism, but a look at our not-so-distant history reveals we once took a very different approach to international issues. There was indeed a time when the United States was progressive in its view of international law; in fact, the United States was once a vanguard for ensuring international accountability and the building and strengthening of international institutions.

Sadly, not quite forty years later, in 1984, the United States withdrew itself from the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ – a court it helped create. (“Compulsory jurisdiction” means that if a dispute involving the US was submitted to the Court, the United States would be required to subject itself to the Court's authority.) In 2005, the United States terminated its acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction over disputes arising under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty that specifically named the ICJ as the venue for settling such cases.

This blog takes a look at the nature of the ICJ, the United States’ history with the Court, and the implications of our shifting stance with this international body.

What is the International Court of Justice?

The ICJ is the primary judicial organ of the United Nations (U.N.) and has been functioning in this capacity since 1946. The authority to establish the Court is found in Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter on the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, which lists judicial settlement as one of the means suggested to peacefully resolve disagreements between States. [1] (In other words, make complaints, not war.) The Court is only concerned with resolving matters between governments; individuals or other private entities cannot file cases with the ICJ. A “contentious case” before the Court may look like this: Two coast countries, State A and neighboring State B, cannot agree about where to mark the border of the continental shelf (the shallow landmass that extends into the sea), so bring the case before the ICJ to resolve.

Notably, the Court’s jurisdiction over disputes between states exists only on the basis of consent, which means that each State makes the decision regarding the extent to which it will submit to the Court’s authority. Nearly 70 States (or 1/3 of U.N. Member States) recognize the jurisdiction of the Court as compulsory, which, as mentioned above, allows that State to initiate proceedings with the Court, but also requires that State to appear before the Court should proceedings be initiated against it by one or more other States.

States that have not agreed to compulsory jurisdiction can still come before the Court in two ways 1) as signatories to a treaty that specifically names the ICJ as the venue to settle disputes, (approximately 300 treaties refer to the Court in settling disputes); and 2) on a case-by-case basis. Finally, as a court of “dual jurisdiction,” the ICJ not only has the authority to decide contentious cases between States, but may also provide advisory opinions on legal questions at the request of the organs of the U.N. or other specialized agencies.

So why did we need the ICC?

As you may recall from an earlier post, in 2002, the international community established the International Criminal Court – a venue to prosecute individuals responsible for the gravest violations of international law: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Unlike the ICJ, which handles disputes between States, the ICC handles cases against individuals and offers recourse to the victims of their heinous crimes. The ICC addressed a significant gap in international accountability by allowing individual victims to assert their human rights, often against leaders of their own State. While the ICC has successfully ended impunity for some of the most serious human rights abuses in recent history, its effectiveness has been weakened by the United States’ refusal to become a party.

The United States and the ICJ

As a founding member of the ICJ, the United States accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ in 1946. In the next thirty-eight years, the United States was a party to ten cases, in which the Court facilitated the peaceful resolution of disputes, as well as clarified Treaty obligations and principles of international law. However, in 1984, in a dispute between Nicaragua and the United States, the Court held that the United States had violated obligations under the United States-Nicaragua Friendship, Commerce and Navigation Treaty by supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua.[2] In response to this judgment, the United States withdrew from the case and terminated its acceptance of compulsory jurisdiction.[3] This defiant response to the Court and international community in the mid-80s set the United States on the path to exceptionalism.

At that time, the United States still accepted jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis and as a party to Treaties naming the ICJ as the venue to settle disputes. However, in 1999, another unfavorable judgment planted the seed of complete separation. Under the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, any alleged violation of the Convention would be resolved by the ICJ. The Protocol requires signatories to submit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ, and allows the Court to “make the final decision when their citizens say they have been illegally denied the right to see a home-country diplomat when jailed abroad.”

In 1999, under the auspices of the Convention, Germany sought to halt the imminent execution of Walter LaGrand, a German national being held in the US. In response, the ICJ issued a provisional measure calling on the United States to ensure LaGrand’s death sentence was not carried out, but LaGrand was executed the same day. Two years later, Germany asserted that the United States had 1) violated its legal obligation under the Vienna Convention to give consular officers access to imprisoned nationals; and 2) failed to comply with the ICJ’s provisional measure.

The ICJ found in Germany’s favor, ruling: 1) the United States violated the Convention by not informing the German consulate of the imprisonment and subsequent sentence of LaGrand and his brother (who had been executed for the same crime before Germany made its initial request to the ICJ in 1999); and 2) the provisional measure of the ICJ was binding on the U.S. government. Three years later, after a similar case in which the ICJ ordered the United States to review the convictions of 51 Mexicans who had been sentenced to death without being informed of their right to consular assistance, the United States withdrew from the Optional Protocol. Any guesses who proposed the Protocol in 1963? The United States.


Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the ICJ’s aforementioned “order to review” regarding the 51 Mexicans sentenced to death in the case Medellin v. Texas. In 2004, President Bush had cooperated with this ruling and ordered trial revisions. However, most courts, including a court in Texas that had sentenced convicted murderer Jose Ernesto Medellin, did not comply with Bush’s instruction. In reviewing the lower court’s “disobedience,” the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Texas and held that “neither (the ICJ) nor the president’s memorandum constitutes directly enforceable federal law that pre-empts state limitations.” [4]

The implications of the landmark Medellin judgment are felt far beyond the enforceability of Consular Treaties, and further erode the United States’ international reputation. A State’s refusal to respect its decisions compromises the ICJ’s ability to function effectively as a forum for peaceful resolution on the international stage. Sixty years ago, the United States was proudly at the center of that stage. Unfortunately, much has changed in a few decades. While most States throughout the world recognize the value and legitimacy of international law, U.S. indifference (at best) and hostility (at worst) to the ICJ and similar international institutions threatens to undermine the very system the United States helped create.

By Nadia Ben-Youssef, Legal Intern, International Justice Project

[1] U.N. Charter. Chapter VI (Art. 33).
[2] Nicaragua v. United States, 1984 I.C.J.Rep. 169 (Order of May 10).
[3] Morrison, Fred L. (January 1987). "Legal Issues in the Nicaragua Opinion”, 81 Am. J. Int'l L. 160, 162.
[4] See Medellin v. Texas, 128 S.Ct. 1346, 1353 (2008).


  1. What are the rules and or procedures regarding to preliminary hearings in the ICJ? For example if a party shows that they have enough evidence to begin the trial;what would happen if that same party say that they are missing some documents or do not have enough evidence to continue trial? Would the case be thrown out?

  2. Thanks for your question - you can find information about the ICJ's rules of procedure here: Much of the information about the collection of evidence appears in and around Articles 50-60.