What is the International Court of Justice? | WORLD
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What is the International Court of Justice?

BACKGROUNDER | The principal judicial organ of the United Nations adjudicates international legal disputes, but it has no police enforcement powers

Peter Dejong / AP

What is the International Court of Justice?
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On May 24, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. The Hague-based court based its ruling on the UN Genocide Convention. Although the ­ruling increased inter­national pressure on Israel to roll back its campaign against Hamas, Israel did not immediately comply with the court’s order.

What does the International Court of Justice do? As the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the ICJ’s twofold role is to settle international legal disputes submitted by nations in accordance with international law and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by UN agencies.

How did it come into being? The ICJ was founded in 1945 after World War II with a mandate to rule according to international humanitarian law to regulate methods of warfare and to protect combatants, prisoners of war, and civilians. Since its founding, the ICJ has considered over 190 cases, including ones involving the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Protection of War Victims.

Why did it rule against Israel in May? South Africa brought the case against Israel, accusing it of committing acts of genocide. Both countries are signatories of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which gives the ICJ the authority to settle related disputes. The court voted 13-2 that Israel should cease its military actions in Gaza, keep open the Rafah crossing (the border between Gaza and Egypt) for humanitarian aid, and give unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip for any fact-finding mission of the UN to investigate genocide.

What happens if Israel doesn’t comply? The ICJ has no police force and no enforcement powers. But if a UN member state does not comply with an ICJ ruling, the UN Security Council could issue a resolution on the matter. Theoretically, the United Nations could then order peacekeeping troops into a particular conflict. Russia ignored an ICJ order from 2022 to halt its invasion of Ukraine.

Who are the ICJ judges? The court’s panel of 15 judges represent 15 different nationalities. They are elected by the UN General Assembly and Security Council for nine-year terms. The court’s current president is Nawaf Salam of Lebanon, and its vice president is Julia Sebutinde of Uganda.

How does the ICJ differ from the International Criminal Court? The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who commit genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, whereas the ICJ makes rulings concerning nations. Although the ICC was created by a 1998 mandate from the General Assembly, it is legally and functionally independent from the United Nations. On May 20, the ICC’s chief prosecutor requested the court issue arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, along with leaders of Hamas.

Is the United States party to either court? The United States is party to the UN statute that created the International Court of Justice. However, in 1986 the United States switched from compulsory jurisdiction to acceptance of the court’s jurisdiction on a discretionary basis. The United States is not a state party to the Rome Statute that founded the Interna­tional Criminal Court. Critics say belonging to the ICC is incompatible with national sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution.


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