International Court of Justice: Role & Jurisdiction

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  • 0:00 A Court of Nations
  • 0:59 Composition of the ICJ
  • 2:01 Who Has Standing?
  • 2:37 Limitations of the ICJ
  • 3:28 Cases Involving the US
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

When talks break down between people over issues, lawsuits are often filed. Between countries, wars were often fought. However, with the creation of the International Court of Justice, a new forum for disputes exists.

A Court of Nations

In our society, when you have been seriously wronged by a person or an organization, you have the opportunity to challenge their actions in a court of law. In fact, the threat of a lawsuit is often enough to cause many to second-guess their actions. However, while lawsuits are useful for people and groups, they are of little use between the governments of different countries. For centuries, nations had no such legal recourse when faced with injustice from another country. They could declare war, stop trade, or simply endure the abuse. Following the end of the Second World War, however, there was a real desire among nations to limit future conflicts. Recognizing that all countries were equal, the framers of the United Nations felt that a better choice for disagreeing countries, at least compared to war, was the chance to sue one another. As a result, the International Court of Justice was formed to settle lawsuits between countries.

Composition of the ICJ

Centered in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands, the International Court of Justice, or the ICJ, is made up of 15 judges who serve staggered nine-year terms. Every three years a new group of five judges is voted in by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. There are no official rules governing which countries the judges come from, but each of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China - have always had a citizen as a judge sitting on the court, and the rest of the judges will come from a variety of the world's regions. Also, if a country lacks a judge on the bench and is part of a lawsuit with another country, it may send a citizen to act as a judge in addition to the 15 already there. In cases where neither party in a case has a national acting as a judge, each can send a judge. This means that there can be as many as 17 judges hearing a case, and as you'd imagine, any special judges sent especially for the case tend to vote with their home country.

Who Has Standing?

If you ever look at any of the more than 130 cases that the International Court of Justice has tried, it looks more like a list of international soccer matches. This is because only countries can sue other countries in this court - an individual person or business cannot be a party to any case. The court was, in this way, envisioned to sort out differences of opinion on resource use, land rights, and water access. However, nations can sue other nations on behalf of a company or individual if it is viewed as the most expedient diplomatic means to a solution.


The fact that only states can be party to any action in the International Court of Justice is a substantial barrier and part of the reason that it has only heard a few dozen cases in its several decades of existence. However, other barriers exist, too. Since there is no international police force or international prison for countries, states essentially have to agree to comply with whatever decision is reached by the court. If they fail to comply, the issue of non-compliance is referred to the UN Security Council. As you may have heard, the UN Security Council is far from a fair organization. The five permanent members have veto powers, and they regularly use such power to protect themselves and their allies. As a result, some people feel that the International Court of Justice has little authority to mandate that its rulings are carried out.

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