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What international courts exist and what are their functions?
International courts exist as a result of an agreement between nations as to their formation and authority. The authority of the court over a country or its citizens may result from that country becoming a member of an international organization or signatory to an international agreement. Courts that exercise global jurisdiction over the actions by or among countries include:
• UN Security Council – While not technically a court, the United Nations Security Council claims jurisdiction over all countries with regard to activities potentially disturbing or jeopardizing world peace. This group may investigate and make determinations regarding activity potentially jeopardizing world peace. These investigations may end in a recommendation for action by the UN (or its member nations) to address the threatening activity through sanctions or military intervention.
• UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) – The ICJ is the judicial branch of the United Nations. It provides advisory opinions to international agencies concerning international law. Further, it adjudicates matters or disputes submitted to the court by the party countries or nations. In this way, the ICJ has very broad jurisdiction to hear any type of dispute. Judges from developed legal systems throughout the world are elected by the UN General Assembly to sit on the court.
• International Criminal Court (ICC) – The ICC was formed pursuant to a multilateral treaty, known as the Rome Statute. The ICC, as the name implies, adjudicates criminal matters in the international context. The court will only hear a criminal matter when national courts will not or cannot prosecute individuals for the alleged criminal conduct. In this way, the ICC complements the criminal law system present in any country. Individual states may defer to the ICC and request that the ICC prosecute a case. This may occur when the country believes that this is the only manner or method of holding a fair trial. Common examples of ICC cases include acts of genocide or crimes against humanity.
• WTO Appellate Body (Appellate Body) – The Appellate Body hears appeals from disputes addressed by WTO panels. These panels often serve as arbitrator for disputes submitted to the panel by WTO members. The Appellate Body consists of seven individuals from WTO countries who act as appellate judges in reviewing panel decisions. These individuals may uphold, modify, or reverse a panel’s decision in a dispute. The Appellate Body issues a report that affirmatively settles a disputes. The parties to the dispute must accept the Appellate Body’s report as the final adjudication of the matter. The WTO may levy sanctions or offer other procedural methods for enforcing the Appellate Body’s report.
• International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) – The ITLOS is a UN sanctioned court that provides a system for adjudicating the law as it applies to the ocean and its resources. 167 countries are signatories to the agreement establishing this court. Notably, the court hears matters of mining on sea floors that are outside of a nation’s geographic boundaries, territorial seas, the contiguous zone, and the continental shelf.
Numerous international courts or tribunals exist in specific regions or areas of the world. These courts or tribunals will hear diverse matters involving signatory nations within their subject matter and geographic jurisdictions.
• Discussion: How do you feel about the authority vested in these courts? Should the US government and its citizens be subjected to international law? What are the arguments for and against this? Does it matter whether the subject-matter is civil or criminal in nature? Does the mandatory or voluntary nature of some of the courts affect your opinion?