How Does the International Court of Justice Work?

photo of scale of justice and gavel

Warfare is a painful means to address problems that arise between nations. International law provides a peaceful method of dispute settlement. International institutions have developed to adjudicate the questions involved. The United Nations, a worldwide organization of nations, formed the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for this purpose. The ICJ has fifteen judges who settle disputes among nations and questions posed by the United Nations. Peaceful negotiation and rational reasoning protect international harmony.

United Nations Created 

The horrors of World War II, including “crimes against humanity” such as the Holocaust, put the countries of the world on notice. There was a fundamental need for an international body to address the world’s problems. Peaceful conflict negotiation could avoid unnecessary suffering. 

The Allies who fought fascism during World War II  established the United Nations. The U.N. would serve many functions, including the fight against disease. 

The charter of the United Nations established the International Court of Justice (World Court) to settle international disputes.  It resides in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands. The International Criminal Court also does its business in “The Hague.” 

International Court of Justice’s Job

A guide to the “Model United Nations” summarizes:

The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies. The Court decides disputes between countries, based on the voluntary participation of the States concerned. If a State agrees to participate in a proceeding, it is obligated to comply with the Court’s decision.

This paragraph contains a lot of information. Let us break it down.  

[1] International Law 

Laws are rules that bind us. There are various types of law. You might discover this when your parents, significant others, and so on  lay down “the law.”  

One form of government law is international law. The rules that developed between nations became known as “international law.”  

[2] Legal Disputes Submitted  

When two people have a dispute, a “mediator” can be helpful to settle the matter.  

The United Nations Charter, the founding agreement among its member nations (states), set forth the International Court of Justice as a body to settle disputes among nations.  

The International Criminal Court addresses cases involving individuals. The International Court of Justice only settles disputes among nations. 

[3] Binding Settlement 

Member nations of the UN consent to the International Court of Justice deciding disputes.  

There are three ways in which the ICJ gets the power to decide a dispute. First, nations can agree by special arrangement.  Second, something like a treaty binds them to settle disputes via the ICJ.  Third, special rules can require nations to submit claims to the ICJ.

[4] Advisory Judgments

The International Court of Justice advises other groups inside the United Nations organization about various questions of international law. 

The U.S. Supreme Court can only decide cases between two parties. They cannot make advisory judgments merely to determine what the law is. The ICJ can hand down advisory judgments. 

International Court of Justice In Action 


The General Assembly and Security Council elect the fifteen judges of the International Court of Justice. A majority is required to choose a judge.

Judges serve nine-year terms, and five judges are elected every three years. Only one judge may come from any UN member state, and a judge does not represent their government while serving as an ICJ member.


Between 1947 and 2023, the “General List” of the ICJ had 190 cases. Most of these were disputes among member states. These disputes are “contentious cases.” 

Advisory Proceedings 

The ICJ can also hear advisory proceedings. For instance, the General Assembly can submit legal questions. The General Assembly has representatives from the nations of the world. 


There is a basic procedure: an open trial, deliberating in private, and then the release of a public opinion agreed to by a majority. Dissents are also possible.  

Final Thoughts 

The United States Supreme Court hands down about seventy rulings a year. 

The decisions of the International Court of Justice might seem minimal since it has been in operation since the 1940s. The Supreme Court decides more cases in three years than the total number of disputes handled by the World Court.

Nonetheless, those opinions have served a fundamental role in setting forth international law and clarifying the rules of United Nations organizations. For instance, even if a judgment is only binding to the parties, the findings of the law will influence many other nations’ actions.  

The ICJ provides a significant means to settle worldwide disputes.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.