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International Court of Justice, United Nations

International Court of Justice, United Nations

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which forms an integral part of the UN Charter. Its main task is to decide legal cases between nations; people may not bring private cases before the court. All members of the UN are parties to the statute of the World Court, as are the two non-member states, Switzerland and Nauru. A nation that is not a party to the statute may use the court if it accepts, either in general or in a given case, the obligations of a member of the UN.


Under Article 94 of the UN Charter, disputes are brought before the court in two ways. The first is by a special agreement, under which all parties agree to submit the matter to the court. The second is by a unilateral application by one party involved in a dispute; for example, a country might claim that its adversary was obliged by the terms of a particular treaty to accept the authority of the court in such a dispute. A provision in the statute of the court also permits, but does not require, nations that are parties to the statute to declare in advance their acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the court in certain types of international controversy. If two parties to a dispute have filed such declarations, and if the dispute between them falls within the bounds of the declarations, then either party may bring the case before the court. In October 1985 President Ronald Reagan formally withdrew the United States from its long-standing policy of automatic compliance with World Court decisions; this action left only 43 nations that accepted the court’s compulsory jurisdiction. The US action weakened the court, which was already handicapped by the refusal of many major powers—including the Soviet Union, China, France, West Germany (now part of the United Federal Republic of Germany), and Italy—to accept its authority. However, its decisions can set important moral precedents, as with the June 1996 ruling which declared that the use of nuclear weapons in warfare was illegal except in “extreme circumstances”.

The court renders judgments according to the general principles of international law recognized by civilized nations, as well as international customs and rules of treaties and conventions recognized by the disputing parties. The court also refers to past judicial decisions and the writings of experts in international law. The judgment of the court, which must contain the reasons for the decision, is final and binding, and no appeal may be made. The UN Security Council is empowered to take measures to enforce the decision of the court if the parties to the dispute fail to enforce it themselves. In effect, however, the World Court has little power to enforce its rulings. In 1980, for example, when the court ordered Iran to release 53 American hostages, Iran simply ignored the ruling.

In addition to deciding disputes between nations, the court gives advisory opinions on legal questions to the General Assembly, the Security Council, and other specialized agencies that have been authorized by the General Assembly to ask for such opinions. An example is the judgment of the court in 1962 that peacekeeping expenses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) and the Middle East constituted “expenses of the organization” to be paid by member states as apportioned by the General Assembly.

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