The International Courts Explained

 In Articles

Jack Wiston

In light of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel being brought to the International Court of Justice, it is important to understand the role of the international courts and how justice is achieved on the global stage. This article explores the roles of two prominent global courts; the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).


In the complex tapestry of international law and order, two institutions stand as pillars of justice and accountability: the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Established in the aftermath of the most devastating conflicts in human history, these courts symbolize humanity’s enduring commitment to peace, justice, and the rule of law on a global scale.

The ICJ, often referred to as the World Court, was established in 1945 as a key organ of the United Nations. Its primary role is to adjudicate disputes between states, offering a legal path to resolving conflicts that might otherwise escalate into war. Rooted in the principles of international law, the ICJ serves as a beacon for sovereign equality and peaceful resolution.

In contrast, the ICC, which came into being through the Rome Statute in 2002, represents a more recent yet equally significant development in international law. Unlike the ICJ, the ICC focuses on holding individuals, rather than states, accountable for the most serious crimes of concern to the international community: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. This court embodies the collective resolve of its member states to ensure that such grave offenses do not go unpunished, thereby deterring future atrocities.

Together, the ICJ and ICC navigate the intricate landscape of international relations, human rights, and global justice. They are not just courts in the traditional sense but symbols of hope and progress. They demonstrate that, in a world often divided by national interests and political power plays, justice and accountability can transcend borders, offering a semblance of order in international chaos.

This article delves into the origins, functions, and challenges of these two monumental institutions. We will explore their differences and similarities, significant cases that have shaped their legacies, and the impact they have had—and continue to have—on the international stage. As we dissect their roles in the global justice system, we invite readers to reflect on the delicate balance between national sovereignty and international accountability, and the ongoing quest for a just world order.


Origins and Foundations

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)

Establishment and Background:

The International Court of Justice, commonly known as the World Court, is an integral part of the United Nations system, established in 1945 by the UN Charter. It succeeded the Permanent Court of International Justice, a body created after World War I as part of the League of Nations. The ICJ was conceived in the wake of World War II, amidst a global consensus for a mechanism to resolve disputes among nations and prevent future conflicts.

Function and Jurisdiction:

The primary function of the ICJ is to adjudicate disputes between states. These disputes typically involve issues such as territorial boundaries, diplomatic relations, and treaty obligations. The court also provides advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized UN organs and specialized agencies. The jurisdiction of the ICJ is dual-faceted: it has compulsory jurisdiction in cases where states have consented to it, and optional jurisdiction in other cases subject to the acceptance by the concerned states.


The International Criminal Court (ICC)

Establishment and Background:

The International Criminal Court, established by the Rome Statute in 2002, marked a significant evolution in international law. It was born out of the need for an independent, permanent court to prosecute individuals for the most heinous crimes of concern to the international community. The atrocities of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and the Rwandan Genocide were pivotal in galvanizing international support for the ICC.

Focus on Individual Prosecutions:

Unlike the ICJ, the ICC is focused on holding individuals, not states, accountable for grave offenses. Its jurisdiction encompasses four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The court steps in when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute these crimes. This focus on individual responsibility is central to the ICC’s mandate, aiming to end impunity for perpetrators of serious crimes that threaten the peace, security, and well-being of the world.


Historical Context and Evolution

Historical Context of the ICJ

Formation and Early Years:

The establishment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1945 was a direct response to the limitations of its predecessor, the Permanent Court of International Justice, which operated under the League of Nations. The failure of the League of Nations to prevent World War II underscored the need for a more robust and effective international legal system. The ICJ was thus designed with broader jurisdiction and stronger enforcement mechanisms as part of the newly formed United Nations. Its establishment signified a commitment to uphold international law and prevent future global conflicts.

Evolution Over Time:

Over the decades, the ICJ has evolved in response to the changing dynamics of international relations. It has played a pivotal role in resolving disputes on a range of issues, from maritime boundaries to environmental disputes. The court has also adapted its procedures and practices to better serve the needs of the international community, striving to remain relevant and effective in a world of increasingly complex international disputes.


Historical Context of the ICC

Genesis and Development:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in the shadow of the 20th century’s worst atrocities – notably the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Balkan Wars. The Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, held in the aftermath of World War II, provided a temporary solution for prosecuting war crimes but highlighted the need for a permanent international mechanism. The 1990s saw a resurgence in this idea leading to the establishment of the ICC through the Rome Statute in 2002.

Adjustments and Challenges:

Since its inception, the ICC has faced various challenges, including criticisms of its effectiveness, accusations of bias, and difficulties in enforcing its mandates, particularly given its reliance on state cooperation for arrests and extraditions. The court has been working to address these challenges, refining its procedures and striving to strengthen international cooperation to ensure that it can effectively fulfill its mandate of bringing the gravest offenders to justice.


Legal Framework and Principles

Legal Framework of the ICJ

Statutes and Governing Treaties:

The International Court of Justice operates under its founding document, the ICJ Statute, which is an integral part of the United Nations Charter. This statute outlines the court’s jurisdiction and functioning. The ICJ also adheres to various international laws and treaties, including international customs, general principles of law recognized by civilized nations, and previous judicial decisions and scholarly writings as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law.

Principles Guiding the ICJ:

The ICJ’s legal proceedings are grounded in several core principles of international law, such as the sovereign equality of states, non-interference in domestic affairs, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The court’s jurisdiction is based on the consent of the states involved in a dispute, reflecting the principle of state sovereignty in international law. Additionally, the ICJ emphasizes the importance of binding agreements and treaties between states, upholding these as the bedrock of international relations and law.


Legal Framework of the ICC

Rome Statute and Jurisdictional Scope:

The Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court, defines the court’s jurisdiction and functioning. The ICC can exercise its jurisdiction if the accused is a national of a state party, the crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council. The statute lays down detailed definitions and elements for the core crimes it prosecutes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

Legal Principles Underpinning the ICC:

The ICC operates on the principle of complementarity, meaning it acts only when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute criminals. It upholds the principles of individual criminal responsibility and fair trial standards. The court also adheres to the principle of non-retroactivity, prosecuting only crimes committed after the Rome Statute came into force. The ICC emphasizes victims’ rights and participation in the legal process, reflecting a modern approach to international justice that goes beyond mere retribution.


Differences Between ICJ and ICC

Jurisdiction and Scope


The International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction is primarily over cases between sovereign states. It addresses issues like territorial disputes, environmental law conflicts, treaty violations, and matters of international law. The ICJ can also provide advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by duly authorized international organs and agencies.

The court’s jurisdiction is consensual, meaning it can only hear cases when the states involved agree to its intervention.


The International Criminal Court, conversely, focuses on prosecuting individuals, not states, for serious crimes of international concern: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression.

The ICC exercises jurisdiction when national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute, embodying the principle of complementarity. It can also act when a situation is referred to by the United Nations Security Council or by a state party to the Rome Statute.


Legal Authority and Enforcement


The ICJ’s decisions are binding on the parties involved, but it lacks direct enforcement power. It relies on the United Nations Security Council to enforce its rulings, which can be a complex process influenced by international politics.

The court’s role is more about legal adjudication and less about enforcement, focusing on delivering judgments and setting legal precedents.


The ICC also faces challenges in enforcing its mandates, largely because it depends on the cooperation of states for the arrest and surrender of suspects. This dependency can be problematic when dealing with non-member states or states with conflicting interests.

Unlike the ICJ, the ICC can issue arrest warrants and request state parties to detain and surrender individuals facing charges before the court.


Case Types and Court Composition


The ICJ’s cases often involve complex legal issues requiring a deep understanding of international law and state-to-state relations. The judges, elected by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, represent the world’s major legal systems, ensuring a diversity of legal perspectives.


The ICC deals with criminal cases involving severe violations of human rights. Its judges and prosecutors are experienced in criminal law, international law, and human rights law, focusing on the prosecution and trial of individuals.

The ICC’s structure includes a Pre-Trial Division, Trial Division, and Appeals Division, reflecting its function as a criminal court.


Case Examples

ICJ Case

Example: Nicaragua vs. United States (1986)

Background: This landmark case involved Nicaragua filing a complaint against the United States for supporting the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and for mining Nicaraguan harbors.

Proceedings and Judgment: The ICJ ruled in favor of Nicaragua, stating that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the Contras and mining Nicaraguan harbors. The court ordered the U.S. to cease its illegal use of force and pay reparations to Nicaragua.

Impact and Significance: This case is significant for demonstrating the ICJ’s role in adjudicating disputes involving powerful nations and for its contributions to international law, particularly in the context of the prohibition of the use of force.


ICC Cases

Example: The Trial of Thomas Lubanga (2012)

Background: Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, was accused of war crimes, specifically enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 into armed groups and using them to participate actively in hostilities.

Proceedings and Judgment: Lubanga was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years in prison. This was the first verdict of the ICC and the first international conviction for the crime of recruiting and using child soldiers.

Impact and Significance: The Lubanga case set a precedent in international criminal law for the prosecution of the use of child soldiers. It also highlighted the ICC’s role in holding individuals accountable for violations of international humanitarian law.


Judgment and Punishment

Judgment Delivery in the ICJ

Process: The judgment process in the International Court of Justice involves deliberation by all judges present. Decisions are made by a majority vote. In case of a tie, the President’s vote becomes decisive.

Nature of Judgments: The judgments of the ICJ are declaratory in nature. They establish the rights and obligations of the parties involved. The court can also order provisional measures to prevent aggravating the dispute.

Enforcement: While the judgments are binding, the ICJ lacks direct enforcement powers. Compliance relies on the goodwill of the states. In cases of non-compliance, the matter can be taken up by the United Nations Security Council.


Judgment and Punishment in the ICC

Trial Process: The ICC follows a trial process similar to national criminal courts, with pre-trial, trial, and appeals phases. The cases are heard by a panel of judges, and verdicts are based on the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Types of Punishments: The ICC can impose various penalties, including imprisonment, fines, and forfeiture of proceeds, property, and assets derived directly or indirectly from the crime. The maximum sentence is 30 years, although life imprisonment can be imposed for extreme cases.

Location of Imprisonment: If the accused is found guilty, imprisonment is carried out in a state designated by the court from a list of states which have indicated their willingness to accept ICC prisoners. The detention center in The Hague is used for holding the accused during the trial.


Controversial Aspects and Criticisms

Controversies Surrounding the ICJ

Accusations of Political Influence:

The ICJ has occasionally been criticized for being influenced by political considerations, especially in cases involving major powers or sensitive international issues. Critics argue that the political affiliations and biases of judges can impact decisions, potentially undermining the court’s impartiality.

Challenges in Enforcement:

The lack of direct enforcement mechanisms for ICJ rulings is a significant criticism. In instances where states choose to ignore or dispute a judgment, the court’s effectiveness is called into question, highlighting the limitations of international law in the absence of a centralized enforcement authority.


Criticisms of the ICC

Allegations of Bias and Selectivity:

The ICC has been accused of bias, particularly in focusing predominantly on cases from Africa. This perception has led to criticisms of neocolonialism and has raised questions about the court’s impartiality and its commitment to global justice.

Challenges with State Cooperation:

The ICC’s reliance on state cooperation for the arrest and surrender of suspects poses a significant challenge, especially with non-member states. This limitation has hindered the court’s ability to bring high-profile offenders to justice and has raised concerns about its overall efficacy.

Jurisdictional Limitations:

The ICC’s limited jurisdiction, specifically its inability to prosecute crimes committed in non-member states without a UN Security Council referral, restricts its capacity to act as a truly global court. This limitation has been a point of contention, particularly in conflicts where serious crimes are committed in non-member states.


Role in Current Global Conflicts

ICJ’s Involvement in Contemporary Disputes

Mediating State Conflicts: The ICJ continues to play a critical role in mediating disputes between nations. Its intervention in territorial, maritime, and diplomatic conflicts contributes to the peaceful resolution of potentially volatile situations.

Advisory Opinions on Global Issues: The court also provides advisory opinions on significant international legal questions. These opinions, while not binding, offer guidance on complex legal matters and influence international law.

Impact on International Relations: The ICJ’s judgments and opinions can significantly impact international relations, setting legal precedents and influencing the behavior of states. Its role in upholding international law and promoting peaceful dispute resolution remains pivotal.


ICC’s Response to International Crimes

Prosecuting War Crimes and Genocide: The ICC is actively involved in investigating and prosecuting individuals responsible for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Its actions send a strong message against impunity and serve as a deterrent.

Challenges in Conflict Zones: The court faces significant challenges in conflict zones, especially in areas where it lacks jurisdiction or where there is limited cooperation from local authorities. These challenges affect the ICC’s ability to effectively investigate and prosecute crimes.

Influence on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: The ICC’s work has a profound impact on the advancement of human rights and humanitarian law. Its pursuit of justice for the most serious crimes contributes to the development of these fields and the protection of human rights.


Future Challenges and Prospects

Challenges and Future of the ICJ

Adapting to Changing Global Dynamics:

The ICJ faces the challenge of staying relevant in a rapidly changing world. Issues such as cyber warfare, climate change disputes, and new forms of international conflicts will require the court to adapt and expand its jurisprudence.

Enhancing Compliance and Enforcement:

A key challenge for the ICJ is enhancing the compliance of states with its rulings. Strengthening the mechanisms for enforcement and increasing the political and moral weight of its decisions are critical for the court’s future effectiveness.

Broadening Representation and Diversity:

The ICJ needs to ensure broader representation and diversity in its bench to reflect the evolving international community. This diversity is essential for maintaining legitimacy and balance in its decision-making process.


Future Directions for the ICC

Expanding Reach and Jurisdiction:

The ICC must navigate the complexities of extending its jurisdiction, especially in regions where it currently has limited reach. This expansion is crucial for the court to truly embody its global mandate.

Overcoming Political and Operational Challenges:

Addressing political biases and ensuring impartiality in its proceedings remain significant challenges. The ICC also needs to enhance cooperation with states, particularly in enforcing arrest warrants and securing custody of suspects.

Focusing on Victim Support and Rehabilitation:

The court’s future effectiveness will also depend on its ability to support and rehabilitate victims. Expanding its role in victim compensation and assistance will be crucial for advancing the principles of restorative justice.


Impact and Global Significance

Impact of the ICJ on International Law and Relations

Setting Legal Precedents: The ICJ plays a crucial role in the development of international law by setting legal precedents. Its rulings on territorial disputes, diplomatic relations, and state responsibilities have shaped the principles governing state-to-state interactions.

Resolving Conflicts Peacefully: The court has been instrumental in peacefully resolving disputes that could potentially escalate into larger conflicts. By providing a legal avenue for resolution, the ICJ contributes to maintaining global stability.

Upholding International Norms: The ICJ’s decisions reinforce the importance of international norms and treaties, encouraging states to abide by the rules of international law. This helps in creating a more predictable and stable international order.


Role of the ICC in Advancing Global Justice

Deterring Grave Crimes: The ICC serves as a deterrent to the perpetration of severe crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Its existence sends a powerful message that such crimes will not go unpunished.

Promoting International Accountability: By holding individuals, not just states, accountable for grave violations, the ICC underscores the principle of personal accountability in international law. This has been a significant shift in ensuring justice for the gravest crimes.

Influencing National Legal Systems: The ICC’s work has encouraged many countries to align their national laws with international criminal law standards. This has led to the strengthening of legal systems and increased protection of human rights at the national level.



In exploring the realms of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), we uncover the intricacies of international law and its pivotal role in shaping global justice. These courts, each with its unique mandate and jurisdiction, serve as the cornerstones in the ongoing quest to uphold legal order and human rights on an international scale.

The ICJ, with its focus on state-to-state disputes, has been fundamental in resolving conflicts that bear the potential for broader geopolitical consequences. Its role in interpreting international law and setting legal precedents has shaped the dynamics of international relations, promoting a world order where legal resolutions outweigh militaristic responses.

Conversely, the ICC, by targeting individuals responsible for the gravest of crimes, underscores a vital principle: that no one is above the law. In doing so, it marks a significant evolution in international law – from state-centric to individual-focused accountability. The court’s efforts in prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide not only seek justice for the victims but also aim to deter future atrocities.

Both courts, however, face their unique set of challenges. The ICJ grapples with issues of jurisdictional consent and political influences, while the ICC contends with enforcement difficulties and accusations of bias. These challenges highlight the complex interplay between law and politics on the international stage.

As we look to the future, the continued evolution and adaptation of the ICJ and ICC will be crucial in responding to the changing landscape of global affairs. Issues such as environmental disputes, cyber warfare, and global human rights violations will demand innovative legal approaches and stronger enforcement mechanisms.

Ultimately, the success of these courts in promoting peace, justice, and human rights will hinge on the collective will of the international community. Their existence not only reaffirms our commitment to a rules-based international order but also reminds us of the continuous effort required to sustain it. In a world fraught with conflicts and injustices, the ICJ and ICC stand as beacons of hope – symbols of humanity’s enduring pursuit of a just and equitable world.

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