The Role of the International Court of Justice in Shaping Global Governance

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As the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) also known as the World Court has been settling legal disputes between states and providing advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by the General Assembly, Security Council, or other UN bodies. While the ICJ’s involvement in the international legal system, its ability to reshape global governance issues is somewhat limited.


Cases brought before the ICJ, such as those involving Israel and Russia, can potentially impact global governance by setting precedents and clarifying legal principles. However, the ICJ’s jurisdiction is limited to cases where states voluntarily submit to its authority, and enforcement mechanisms are relatively weak.


The Israeli-Palestine Case


Regarding the Israel-Palestine case,  the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recently heard arguments from more than 50 countries and three international organizations. The six-day hearings were based on a request by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for a nonbinding advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. A panel of 15 judges is anticipated to issue a non-binding advisory opinion on the request, which includes considerations of the legal status of the occupation and its consequences. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the legitimacy of the proceedings at The Hague, stating that Israel would maintain full security control over areas west of the Jordan River, encompassing Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip.


In the hearings, Palestine presented its case, calling for confirmation that Israel’s presence in the occupied Palestinian territory is illegal. Representatives argued that a ruling from the court could contribute to ending the occupation and fostering a just and lasting peace. Various countries, including South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, the US, Russia, Egypt, and Hungary, presented arguments, condemning Israeli occupation as violent and illegal.


The case revolves around the definition of “occupation” under international law, with arguments citing the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Convention. Critics claim Israel violates these principles by building illegal settlements, trying Palestinians in military courts, restricting movement, and obstructing humanitarian aid.


The occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967 has led to ongoing conflicts and international scrutiny. Israel’s policies, including building settlements and imposing restrictions, have been criticized for violating international law. The Gaza Strip, despite Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, is still considered occupied due to a blockade.


Accusations of apartheid were raised during the ICJ hearings, with South Africa and various organizations likening Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to an extreme form of apartheid. Reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch argue that Israel’s policies amount to apartheid, citing systematic oppression, inhumane acts, and discriminatory laws.


Under Israeli occupation, life in the West Bank involves military checkpoints, restricted movement, and violence. Infrastructure is often destroyed, and Palestinians face challenges in obtaining permits. Israeli settlers exacerbate tensions by taking over land, leading to displacement and conflict.


The construction of the separation wall in 2002 further deepened the divide. The ICJ rendered an advisory opinion on the construction of the Israeli-West Bank barrier in 2004. While the opinion affirmed the illegality of the construction in occupied Palestinian territory, its impact on the ground has been limited due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms.


Ukraine’s Case Against Russia


The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has decided that segments of Ukraine’s case against Russia, asserting that Moscow falsely accused Kyiv of genocide to justify the 2022 invasion, can proceed. However, the ICJ specified that it would not address the question of whether Russia breached the 1948 Genocide Convention by using alleged trumped-up genocide charges as a pretext for the war, even if the invasion might have violated international law in a broader sense.


Instead, the focus of the case will shift to evaluating whether Ukraine committed genocide in its eastern regions, as claimed by Russia – a matter over which the judges declared jurisdiction. When Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated the invasion on February 24, 2022, one aspect of his argument was that pro-Russian individuals in eastern Ukraine had been subjected to bullying and genocide by the Kyiv regime. In response, Ukraine filed a suit at the ICJ, vehemently denying these allegations and contending that Russia’s use of genocide as a justification for invasion contradicted the Genocide Convention.


The ICJ asserted that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on whether Russia’s invasion violated the Genocide Convention or if Moscow’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine constituted a breach of the convention. Nevertheless, the judges agreed to Ukraine’s request for the court to affirm that there was no credible evidence that Ukraine was committing genocide in violation of the Genocide Convention in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv seeks a declaration from the ICJ that it did not commit genocide, and a final, legally binding decision is likely years away.

Five Cases Adjudicated by the ICJ


The case brought by Qatar against the United Arab Emirates, accusing it of implementing blockade measures amounting to racial discrimination, has been dismissed by the United Nations’ top court. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) upheld objections raised by the UAE, asserting that the measures imposed during the 2017 dispute were based on nationality, not racial motivations. Qatar filed the case in 2018, following the land, air, and sea links cut by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, alleging Qatar’s support for extremism and proximity to Iran.


Qatar’s rivals agreed to lift the restrictions at a summit, leading the UAE to reopen its borders to Qatar shortly afterward. However, the UAE emphasized that it would take more time to rebuild trust fully.


Doha argued that the UAE’s actions during the three-year blockade violated the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a UN treaty. The ICJ, however, supported the UAE’s first preliminary objection, stating that racial discrimination, as per the convention, does not encompass nationality.


ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, in The Hague, declared that the court lacks jurisdiction to entertain Qatar’s application, asserting that the UAE’s measures were not capable of constituting racial discrimination within the meaning of the convention.


For the Iran vs the United States case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) judged the long-standing case between Iran and the United States, known as Certain Iranian Assets. The Court found that while U.S. actions violated the Treaty of Amity, the termination of the treaty in 2018 limited the Court to award monetary damages, not the cessation of U.S. activities.


The complex judgment covered issues from unclean hands to expropriation. The ICJ ruled that it could not order the release of nearly $1.75 billion in Iranian central bank assets but required the U.S. to compensate Iranian companies for sanctions and asset seizures. Both parties claimed victory. Iran initiated the case in 2016, alleging U.S. violations of the 1955 Treaty of Amity and international law norms. U.S. legislative and executive acts led to default judgments against Iran, triggering the ICJ proceedings.


In its 2019 judgment, the Court rejected U.S. objections to jurisdiction and admissibility.

The Court dismissed the U.S. objection, stating Iranian entities had no reasonable chance in U.S. courts due to the application of post-Treaty federal laws.


In 2019, The Gambia, representing the 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, brought a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Myanmar of failing to meet its obligations under the Genocide Convention. The allegation pertained to the failure to prevent and punish acts of genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.


In response, on 23 January 2020, the ICJ issued an order directing Myanmar to take all necessary measures to prevent acts defined in the Genocide Convention. This included ensuring that its military and any irregular armed units refrained from committing such acts. Additionally, Myanmar was ordered to take effective measures to prevent the destruction of evidence related to the ICJ proceedings and to submit regular compliance reports.


In 2022, the ICJ dismissed Myanmar’s preliminary objections to its jurisdiction, emphasizing the common interest of all signatories in preventing and punishing genocide. The Gambia was deemed entitled to initiate proceedings against a fellow signatory in pursuit of this common interest. On 16 October 2023, the ICJ issued an order for The Gambia to submit its reply to Myanmar’s arguments by 16 May 2024, and for Myanmar to submit a rejoinder – its response to The Gambia’s reply by 16 December 2024.


While the ICJ’s decisions contribute to shaping international law, the effectiveness of global governance transformation relies on states’ willingness to comply with judgments and engage in diplomatic solutions. The ICJ’s impact on governance issues is gradual and often subject to geopolitical considerations and the cooperation of member states.







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