Global Policy Forum

World Court Marks 60th Anniversary,

Associated Press
April 11, 2006

Since the end of World War II, nations have had a judicial forum for resolving their conflicts, shedding weapons and instead deploying the force of argument and law. Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of the International Court of Justice, the UN's paramount judicial arm. Also known as the World Court, it has arbitrated disputes among neighbours, heard grievances of small countries against superpowers, and settled claims by the world's mightiest nations against weaker ones.

Advocates say the august chamber of judges is a voice of impartial justice in a world where disputes too quickly spiral to armed conflict. Detractors say the court is tainted with bias, subject to political influences and powerless to impose its will. The court has jurisdiction over all UN member states, but not over all disputes. The parties must agree to its intervention, either directly in a specific case or as signatories to treaties that refer disagreements to the court. Its decisions are binding and have no recourse of appeal. Historically, one-third of its cases involve border or maritime disputes, requiring the judges to pore over colonial maps and the fine print of old treaties.

However, Iran, the United States and other countries have in the past simply ignored its rulings _ and the court has no means of punishing them for doing so. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will address the 15 justices, Dutch royalty and diplomatic guests on Wednesday in the Great Hall of Justice, the ornate chamber of the 100-year-old Peace Palace, the court's seat. The anniversary comes as the tribunal is hearing arguments in one of its most important cases. Bosnia has charged Serbia with the genocide of Muslims during the 1992-95 war, and is seeking damages that could amount to billions of dollars (euros). It is the first suit by one state against another for the worst crime in the international statutes.

The court often is confused with other judicial bodies based in The Hague: the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and the International Criminal Court. But while the latter are criminal courts that try individuals, the World Court hears disputes among countries and has no power to imprison anyone. In addition to its binding judgments, it also delivers non-binding judicial advise and opinions when asked by other UN bodies.

The latest high-profile opinion was handed down in 2004 when the court ruled the Israeli security barrier in the occupied West Bank was illegal and advised that it should be torn down. Jerusalem brushed aside the finding, but the Israeli Supreme Court cited it when it ordered the army to change the barrier's route to minimize Palestinian suffering. The Israeli and Bosnian cases are examples of how the court's docket has been getting heavier and more challenging. "It's taking on some cases that it might have shied away form in the past," said Professor Elizabeth Defeis, of Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey. "At first, its steps were tentative. It is becoming more confident of its jurisdiction."

British justice Rosalyn Higgins, the court's president and the only woman ever to sit on this bench, says the growing case load is a consequence of the growing trust it is winning among developing nations. "We have a big clientele in the developing world," she told reporters last week. Normally reticent Asian countries are realizing that turning to the court "is not a hostile act. It is not an unfriendly act. It's a practical way of dealing with problems."

Checkered history of success

But the court has a checkered history of success. Though its rulings carry the authority of the United Nations, even binding decisions have no guarantee of being carried out. In 1980, Iran rejected a judgment holding it responsible for the seizure of the US Embassy in Teheran and disregarded an order to release American hostages.

The United States also has violated the court's rulings on several occasions. In 1986 it refused to respond - or even to appear before the court - when the tribunal ruled in favor of Nicaragua's complaint that the CIA had illegally mined its ports to support Sandinista rebels. But Washington at times has bent to the court's will. President George W. Bush issued an executive order last year to state courts to review 51 death penalty cases against Mexicans who had been denied the right to see Mexican diplomats during their trial. The court ruled the convictions violated the Vienna Convention - ratified by the United States in 1969 - by not providing the Mexicans with consular access.

In a landmark case five months ago, the court ruled that Uganda's invasion of Congo in the late 1990s was illegal, and for the first time ordered an African nation to pay compensation. Although Uganda maintained it acted in self defense, it agreed to enter reparations talks to settle the claims.

A 2004 study of the court's judgments by Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School found a compliance rate of just 61 per cent. But Higgins told reporters last week only five of the court's 92 judgments have been rejected. The discrepancy may be explained by the fact that it can take years before decisions are carried out, often after a change of regime or as a result of an unrelated political process. Higgins said on those rare occasions of noncompliance the injured party can turn to the UN Security Council for enforcement _ though that becomes problematic when a dispute involves one of the five veto-empowered permanent members: the United States, Britain, Russia, China

and France. Critics say the court has other inherent weaknesses. Nominated by their governments, its 15 judges are elected by the UN General Assembly and Security Council according to a regional balance. No two judges may come from the same country. Many judges have backgrounds in their national courts, in diplomacy or at senior levels of their governments and are fiercely patriotic. That puts them in a dilemma _ and possibly under pressure _ when their own countries are litigants. Higgins insisted: "We robustly protect our independence." But Posner's study said judges side with their own countries in 85 to 90 per cent of the cases. "Judges are significantly biased in favor of their home state when that state appears as a party," he wrote.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Court of Justice


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