International Court of Justice

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The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Established in 1945, its main functions are to decide cases submitted to it by states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by the General Assembly or Security Council, or by such specialized agencies as may be authorized to do so by the General Assembly in accordance with the UN Charter.

The seat of the Court is in The Hague, Netherlands. It is composed of 15 judges elected by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council from a list of persons nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Judges serve for nine years and may be re-elected. No two may be nationals of the same country. One-third of the Court is elected every three years. An American has always been a member of the Court. Questions before the Court are decided by a majority of judges present.

Only states may be parties in cases before the International Court of Justice. This does not preclude private interests from being the subject of proceedings if one state brings the case against another. While jurisdiction of the Court is based on the consent of the parties, any judgments reached are binding. The Security Council can be called upon by a party to determine measures to be taken to enforce a judgment if the other party fails to perform its obligations. The U.S. accepted the Court's compulsory jurisdiction in 1946 but withdrew its acceptance following the Court's decision in a 1986 case involving activities in Nicaragua. Examples of cases include:

  • A complaint by the United States in 1980 that Iran was detaining American diplomats in Tehran in violation of international law;
  • A dispute between Tunisia and Libya over the delimitation of the continental shelf between them
  • A dispute over the course of the maritime boundary dividing the U.S. and Canada in the Gulf of Maine area.

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