The World Court: Which Court Is It?

Frederic L. Kirgis
May 03, 2005


On April 25, 2005, the New York Times did what others within and outside of the media have done from time to time: it confused the"World Court" with another tribunal based in The Hague. The Times reported that Serbia in the past three months had transferred eleven Serbs accused of atrocities during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia "to the World Court in The Hague." The Serb government has indeed played a part in the transfer of some Serb suspects to a tribunal in The Hague, but the tribunal was not the World Court. It was (and is) the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a tribunal created by the United Nations Security Council to prosecute persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.
"World Court" is the popular name of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It is not a criminal court and it does not have jurisdiction over individuals. It is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, established directly by the U.N. Charter and operating under its own Statute annexed to the Charter. Only nation-states may be parties in contentious cases before the World Court. It has no authority to prosecute or punish them or their officials, but it may issue judgments ordering governments to take remedial action or to compensate for damage caused by their violations of international law. Nation-states are subject to the Court's jurisdiction only if they consent to it; consent may, however, be given in advance of a dispute, either by treaty or by unilateral declaration filed with the Court.
In addition to its jurisdiction in contentious cases, the World Court may render advisory opinions at the request of the U.N. General Assembly, the Security Council and certain other U.N.-related bodies. The General Assembly and Security Council may ask for an advisory opinion on any legal question, which could include questions relating to criminal law. The advisory proceeding, though, would not be a prosecution of anyone for a crime.
There are several international tribunals based in The Hague. They include not only the ICJ and ICTY, but also the International Criminal Court, a separate, treaty-based criminal tribunal set up to prosecute persons for the most serious crimes of international concern. Unlike the ICTY, its jurisdiction is not limited by its governing instrument to a named country or region. But like the ICTY, it is not known as the"World Court."
About the author
Frederic L. Kirgis, an ASIL member, is Law Alumni Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University School of Law. He has written books and articles on international law, and is an honorary editor of the American Journal of International Law.