Having ruled on such diverse issues as plunder of natural resources in Africa to border disputes in South America and whale hunting in the Pacific, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the main judicial organ of the United Nations – turns 70 today and UN Radio has talked with long-time registrar Philippe Couvreur about the evolution of the tribunal’s vital work.
Assessing the major milestones of the ICJ – commonly referred to as the ‘World Court’ – Mr. Couvreur, who has served as Registrar for 15 years, noted that focus of the Court’s cases has changed over the past 70 years; whereas it focused on boundary issues in its earlier years, over time, the Court began dealing with more political disputes.
“Originally, the Court was busy with land or maritime boundary issues – these are very important issues to prevent conflicts – but from the 80s, it has been called upon to deal with disputes which were politically, let’s say, more important – cases concerning the use of force between States. So the activity of the Court has adapted itself to the evolution of international relations,” he said.
The ICJ – the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice – began its work in April 1946, in the aftermath of World War II. Based in The Hague, it comprises 15 judges, who are each elected for nine-year terms by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. The Court is also the only main organ of the UN not located in New York. The Court’s first case was submitted in May 1947, the Corfu Chanel, a “contentious case” concerning state responsibility for damages at sea involving the United Kingdom and Albania.
Mr. Couvreur, who began his career at the Court in 1982, is currently serving his third seven-year term, having been first elected in 2000. As the Court’s Registrar, he keeps the general list of all cases and is responsible for recording documents in the case files. Among other tasks, Mr. Couvreur also manages the case proceedings.
Asked about some of the challenges that might impede the ICJ in achieving a path to justice, he emphasized that, through its mandate, the Court is tasked with settling legal disputes submitted by States.
“It is very important to understand that the Court cannot seize itself of cases and intervene in disputes between States without being seized by those States,” he said. “The activity of the Court is highly dependent on the use States want to make of it or international organizations.”
Indeed, under the UN Charter – which established the ICJ in June 1945 – the World Court is tasked with settling legal disputes submitted by States and with giving advisory opinions on legal questions that authorized UN and specialized agencies refer to it.
As such, Mr. Couvreur said that States have the right to choose how to solve their own disputes.
“The Court is what the States make of it […] only if they choose the Court can the Court act,” he stressed, adding that this doesn’t make the Court any less effective.
“To say that the Court was not successful is certainly not correct, because when the Court is seized it settles the dispute efficiently. There have been some minor difficulties, but at the end of the day,” almost all of the Court’s cases have been implemented immediately, Mr. Couvreur said. He also noted that the Court had not backlog of cases
In fact, he said, the Court’s permanent presence and long jurisprudence have resulted in States having a “strong confidence” in the ICJ. The registrar also noted that the Court’s budget is less than one per cent of the UN’s regular budget.
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