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There’s Another Court in The Hague

Government suppression of revolts in several Arab nations and violence and rights abuses in some parts of Africa have drawn increased attention to the International Criminal Court, the first such permanent tribunal created to try individuals for war crimes, genocide and other gross violations. Less attention is paid to another permanent court in The Hague, the International Court of Justice. At times, the two are confused in media reports.

The International Court of Justice, an integral part of the United Nations system and founded in 1945 to rule on disputes between countries, is by far the senior institution. The International Criminal Court is, functionally, less than a decade old and independent of the UN, though it works in close collaboration with the Security Council.

Four distinguished international jurors have just been elected or re-elected to the International Court of Justice, providing a chance to get reacquainted with this body, the UN’s most important judicial institution. Granted, its cases are not always the stuff of big headlines: a tiff between Ecuador and Colombia over aerial herbicide spraying or a Cambodian request to review a half-century-old ruling on a temple dispute with Thailand. But over the years the court has settled serious controversies that threatened war and currently has several maritime disputes on its docket as well as a contentious case between Australia and Japan over whaling in the Antarctic.

The election of four judges to the International Court of Justice took place this month. Both the General Assembly and the Security Council, shown here (with José Filipe Moraes Cabral, council president this month), vote in the process, which is done simultaneously.

The International Court of Justice – also called the World Court — has 15 judges who are elected by the Security Council and the General Assembly in simultaneous votes and who hold renewable terms of nine years. Three of the four justices chosen this month are already members of the court and will have their terms extended: Xue Hanqin of China, Hisashi Owada of Japan and Peter Tomka of Slovakia.

The newcomers are an Italian, Giorgio Gaja, a professor of international law in Florence, and Julia Sebutinde, a British-trained Ugandan jurist on the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has been trying Charles Taylor, the Liberian leader accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The court aims for an international balance of judges but stresses that qualifications in law outweigh considerations of nationality, though no two judges from the same country can sit on the court at the same time.

UPDATE: In February 2012, the court elected a new president and vice president to each serve a three-year term: Peter Tomka of Slovakia was elected president and Bernardo Sepúlveda-Amor of Mexico as vice president.

Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas," "The Great Hill Stations of Asia" and a Foreign Policy Association study, "India Changes Course," in the Foreign Policy Association's "Great Decisions 2015."

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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