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The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice -- also known as the World Court -- is the judicial arm of the United Nations. From its seat at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Court hears cases brought before it by UN member states.

The International Court of Justice's main functions are to decide on cases submitted to it by states. Only states -- no individual litigants -- may appear before the Court. UN member states are automatically members of the Court but no state is required to submit a case before the court.

The World Court's jurisdiction is based on the consent of parties to a dispute, but its judgments are final and binding. If a state fails to comply with a judgment, the other party may call upon the Security Council to take measures to enforce a judgment.

What sort of case would the World Court hear? They run the gamut -- everything from establishing maritime boundaries to territorial sovereignty, and the use of force. It's given advisory opinions on UN membership, the status of human rights rapporteurs and the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, plus ruled on a host of other legal questions submitted by the General Assembly, the Security Council and other UN agencies.

Ruling on World Court cases are 15 judges, each elected to nine-year terms by the General Assembly and Security Council. Judges do not represent their governments, but are independent magistrates. There cannot be more than one judge of any one nationality. Elections are held every three years for five of the seats, and retiring judges may be re-elected. Current judges hail from Egypt , Japan, Sierra Leone, and the U.S, among other countries. A quorum of nine judges is needed for each case, but since there aren't that many cases -- there have only been 101 cases since 1945 -- all 15 judges usually attend. When hearing a specific case, if the Court does not include a judge of the nationality of a state party to a case, that state may appoint a person to sit as a judge for that case. These judges also have full voting rights. Cases before the World Court are decided by majority vote of the participating judges.

Fast Facts

- Since 1946, the court has given 24 advisory opinions and delivered 75 judgments.

- A U.S. citizen has always been a member of the court. Traditionally, members of the Security Council each have a judge on the Court.

- The U.S. has been a party -- either as a prosecuting party or as a defendant -- to 20 cases heard by the Court.

- The statute of the International Court of Justice is based on the statutes of its predecessor -- the Permanent Court of Justice, established in 1922 by the League of Nations.


Closer Look

The U.S. and the World Court
In 1946, the U.S. accepted an optional clause in the Court's statute -- that gave the Court compulsory jurisdiction over cases regarding interpretation of treaties, any question of international law and any breach of international obligations. In 1984, Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua filed a suit against the U.S for its support of the Contra rebels. In response, the Reagan administration promptly withdrew U.S. recognition of the World Court's compulsory jurisdiction.


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