International Court of Justice – Definition

Cite this article as:"International Court of Justice – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated March 25, 2019, last accessed October 29, 2020,


International Court of Justice Definition

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the judiciary arm of the United Nations (UN). ICJ acts as an unbiased umpire in the settling of legal disputes between member states. It also serves an advisory role to specialized agencies and organs of the UN. The General Assembly and Security Council elects a panel of 15 judges who serve nine-year terms at the ICJ. The ICT is based in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands.

A Little More on What is the International Court of Justice (ICJ)


A successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice, the UN Charter established the ICJ in 1945 and it became operation in 1946. The court is constituted and regulated by the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

The ICJ handles a wide range of judicial matters. In Nicaragua v. United States, the court ruled that the United States violated international law by waging a clandestine war against Nicaragua. Following the court’s ruling, the U.S. in 1986 withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction, choosing to accept the court’s jurisdiction based on the merits of individual cases. The UN Security Council can enforce the Court’s judgment under Chapter XIV of the United Nations Charter. However, the five permanent members of the Council have veto powers. In the Nicaragua case, the United States vetoed the Council’s position, preventing enforcement of the ruling.


Public Hearing at the ICJ

The ICJ comprises 15 judges who serve nine-year terms. The national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration nominate a list of qualified persons from which the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council elects representatives. Articles 4-19 of the ICJ statute outline the election process. To ensure continuity within the ICJ, the UN conducts staggered elections every three years to elect five judges to the Court. If a judge dies in office, a new judge who is elected in a special election will complete the term.

All the judges serving on the ICJ must be of different nationalities. Regarding the court’s membership, Article 9 of the ICJ statute states that the body should represent the “main forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems of the world”. This shows that the makeup of the court represents common law, civil law and socialist law.

On geographical distribution of the seats, the practice has been to elect five judges from Western countries, three from the African continent (one judge each for Anglophone common law, francophone civil law, and Arab) two for Latin America and Caribbean states, two for Eastern Europe nations, and three for Asian countries.

Since inception, judges from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (including China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States) have served for more years on the ICJ than other countries. Three seats go to Western countries, one for Asian states and one for Eastern European states. However, China had no judge serving at the court from 1967 to 1985 because it did not nominate candidates. Since 2017, the UK has no judge serving on the ICJ after it withdrew Sir Christopher Greenwood following a failed attempt to seek reelection for a second nine-year term. While the British judge Greenwood received the UN Security Council’s backing, he could not clinch a majority at the UN General Assembly. Judge Dalveer Bhandari of India occupies the seat.

According to Article 6 of the Statute, judges who are qualified for the highest judicial office in their home countries or recognized as lawyers with requisite knowledge of international law should be “elected regardless of their nationality among persons of high moral character.”

Articles 16-18 discuss the court’s judicial independence. The Statute prohibits ICJ judges from acting as counsel or holding any other posts while serving on the court. However, these rules are subject to the interpretation of individual judges. As long as there is no conflict of interests, ICJ judges can hold professional posts and offer arbitration outside of the court. Only a unanimous vote of the other members of the ICJ can dismiss a judge. However, judges do not enjoy full autonomy. This was clear during the Nicaragua case when the United States blamed the presence of judges from Eastern bloc states for its refusal to provide sensitive materials to the court.

Judges may give individual opinions or deliver joint judgments. The majority vote applies to decisions and Advisory Opinions, though judges may also deliver separate dissenting opinions. If there is an equal division, the President’s vote is the deciding factor as demonstrated in the opinion request by the WHP on the Legality of the Use by a State of Nuclear Weapons in Armed Conflict.

Ad Hoc Judges

Article 31 of the statute allows ad hoc judges to handle contentious cases before the ICJ. If a party to a contentious case does not have one of its nationals sitting on the court, the article allows the party to nominate one judge to sit on that case. This system allows up to seventeen judges to sit on a case.

The aim of the ad hoc system is to encourage member states submit cases to the ICJ. This is because it increases the willingness of states to bring cases to the court knowing their representative will help other judges understand their stand on the matter. However, the system is of no use as ad hoc judges usually vote in favor of their home state. This makes their votes inconsequential.


In the previous fifteen years, the court has sat as a chamber occasionally, but it normally sits as a full bench. Under articles 25-29 of the ICJ statute, the court can form smaller chambers of 3 or 5 judges to hear cases. Article 26 provides for two chambers including

  •         Chambers for special categories of cases
  •         Ad hoc chambers to hear particular disputes

Article 26(1) of the statute created a special chamber in 1993 to sit on environmental issues.

The court frequently forms ad hoc chambers. For example, the court used a chamber to hear the Gulf of Maine Cases between the U.S. and Canada. The parties to that case only agreed to submit to the court’s jurisdiction after it appointed acceptable judges to the chamber. The judgment of chambers may be less authoritative than full Court judgments. Also, cultural and legal considerations may affect chambers’ ability to interpret universal international law properly. However, chambers may also encourage members to submit to the court’s jurisdiction, thus promoting international dispute resolution.

References for the International Court of Justice

Academic Research on the International Court Of Justice

The law and procedure of the International Court of Justice 1960–1989: part one, Thirlway, H. (1990). British Yearbook of International Law, 60(1), 1-157. This article summarizes the history of the International Court of Justice, its composition and functions in resolving international disputes.

The danger of fragmentation or unification of the international legal system and the International Court of Justice, Dupuy, P. M. (1998). NYUJ Int’l L. & Pol., 31, 791. The post offers in-depth details into the history of the ICJ, its function, and how it contributes to peaceful coexistent among UN member states.

The International Court of Justice and the human rights clauses of the Charter, Schwelb, E. (1972). American Journal of International Law, 66(2), 337-351. This paper examines the impact the Charters of the United Nations have on interpreting human rights regarding the expeditionary force of South Africa in Namibia.

Is the International Court of Justice Biased?, Posner, E. A., & De Figueiredo, M. F. (2005).  The Journal of Legal Studies, 34(2), 599-630. This paper looks at the neutrality of the International Court of Justice. In its findings, the study notes that ICJ judges deliver judgments that favor the states that appoint them and states whose wealth level is like that of their own states.

Law and procedure of the International Court of Justice: Treaty interpretation and certain other treaty points, Fitzmaurice, G. G. (1951). Brit. YB Int’l L., 28, 1. This article looks at the procedures ICJ judges use to interpret treaties.

The Law and Procedure of the International Court of Justice 1951-4: Treaty Interpretation and Other Treaty Points, Fitzmaurice, G. (1957). Brit. Yb Int’l L., 33, 203. This book examines the law and procedure of the ICJ regarding treaty interpretation and the impact on international law.

The International Court of Justice after fifty years, Jennings, R. Y. (1995). American Journal of International Law, 89(3), 493-505. In this paper, researchers analyze the ICJ after fifty years. The study traces the trajectory of the body from its predecessor, the Permanent Court of International Justice to a full-fledged organ of the UN backed by its own charter.

Compliance with final judgments of the International Court of Justice since 1987, Paulson, C. (2004). American Journal of International Law, 98(3), 434-461. This study aims to find out the rate of compliance with the final judgments of the ICJ. While the researchers concluded that cases of noncompliance with final judgments are rare, it posits that the court does not follow up on the actions of parties post-judgment.

The Amendments to the Rules of Procedure of the International Court of Justice٭‎, de Aréchaga, E. J. (1973). American Journal of International Law, 67(1), 1-22. This paper looks at the amendments to the ICJ’s Rules of Court. While the court planned a large-scale revision of its rules, it ended up amending only articles with contentious provisions.

Territorial disputes at the International Court of Justice, Sumner, B. T. (2003). Territorial disputes at the International Court of Justice. Duke LJ, 53, 1779. This paper examines how the International Court of Justice resolves territorial disputes.

“Binding” advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice, Ago, R. (1991). American Journal of International Law, 85(3), 439-451. This article looks at the legal enforceability of the court’s advisory opinions under Article 96 of the Charter.

Broadening the Advisory Jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, Sohn, L. B. (1983). American Journal of International Law, 77(1), 124-129. In this paper, the researcher examines the broadening advisory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.


Was this article helpful?