Justice, Light Your Fire

Foto: sxc.hu

Although brief, my visit to the International Court of Justice in The Hague was an informative and thought-provoking experience that left a strong impression on all of us, due to an interesting combination of factors. Having the impressive and breathtaking architecture of the Peace Palace as a background and benefiting from the experience and skillfulness in explanations of Mrs. Laurence Blairon, Secretary of the Court, who not only provided a scrupulously structured presentation but answered all our questions with patience and benevolence, we found out more about ICJ in one-hour than we could have in weeks of reading. The insight information and detailed explanations she provided are unlikely to be found in books and certainly not in the straightforward and practical way in which they were delivered to us during our one-hour discussion in the Red Room.

I would have to admit that the expectations that I had set for the visit to the ICJ were overtopped by the actual presentation, as we had been previously warned to expect more of a PR-oriented speech rather than one tailored to our questions and doubts. However, Mrs.Blairon’s presentation was attention-grabbing and concise, not lacking certain elements of PR but overall very clearly-cut and realistic.

One of the most interesting sides of ICJ’s actual activity has to do with the current pending cases, that our speaker provided insight details and comments on. Firstly, even before starting to work on the actual cases, the challenging issue for the ICJ judges’ activity consists in finding the right way of harmonizing Common Law with Roman Civil Law, given the strong mix of legal people coming from both Law Systems who must work together in solving cases. Moreover, the ICJ system does not resemble any other international judicial mechanism, since all judges partake in the decision-making and each one has to produce a 60 to 90 pages anonymous assessment of the case. The judge that directly handles the case must read all the drafts his colleagues provided before the first meeting, where a majority usually emerges in terms of opinions on the case and where a Draft Committee is elected. This is a fascinatingly complex procedure as, unlike other ruling mechanisms that I came across so far, it is based on the equal participation of all its members, allowing each one to offer his input and thus increase the chance of an impartial and unbiased final ruling. Interestingly, the average age of the judges is around 65, with ICJ president Rosalyn Higgins being the first and only female appointed to the ICJ, later becoming its president.

The complexity of ICJ’s activity also resides in the nature of the written proceedings, which can take between 2 and 6 years to complete, with all the needed steps undertaken. Nevertheless, taking into account that the ruling is made – as our speaker put it – “for eternity”, without even the possibility of appeals, it is considered to be only fair to give the states enough time to carry out all their research, provide all the necessary documents and build a strong case for themselves.

At present, some of the most interesting cases which are pending at the ICJ and which caught my attention are Romania vs.Ukraine –“Maritime Delimitation in the Black Sea”, the first ICJ case ever to come from Eastern Europe and the “Pulp Mills on River Uruguay” (Argentina vs. Uruguay), the latter being extremely intriguing given the background of the two disputing countries, Argentina and respectively Uruguay. Researching about this case, I couldn’t help not think about the Global Apartheid that we had debated both during the International Relations class and in our midterm, observing the way in which poverty can even lead to the distortion of relations between traditionally friendly and good-neighboring countries. Argentina brought Uruguay before the ICJ purportedly fearing the pollution that the setting of the pulp mills can cause to river Uruguay, which is a natural border between the two states.

On the other side, Uruguay claims that the pulp mills are completely environmentally-safe, as they represent one of the biggest foreign investments in Uruguay and are to be built by European companies, using non-polluting technologies. The people of Uruguay, however, see Argentina’s attempt of blocking this project as a sign of economic-jealousy, given Argentina’s bad current economic situation, considering that Argentina’s attempt of bringing the case before the ICJ is merely an intention of hindering the foreign investment coming to Uruguay. Indeed, for some of the Latin American countries, especially those confronted with great disparities, the illusion of the West and the hope in the investments coming from rich countries which can rebuild their fragile economies is hard to shatter.

Aside from ICJ’s complex activity, there are a few aspects that I found intriguing and not fully in line with the way in which I had pictured that an “International Court of Justice” would be. From this viewpoint, one of the things that I appreciated the most about our speaker was her willingness in offering answers even to the “inconvenient” and “not fully politically correct questions”, such as those related to the somewhat biased relation between ICJ and the permanent member-states of the United Nations’ Security Council.

First of all, an intriguing aspect of the ICJ’s activity relates to the jurisdiction of the court or, specifically, to the reluctance of UN members in granting the ICJ jurisdiction over disputes that may arise from their relations to other states. Although according to the Optional Clause System, states can submit declarations by which they give ICJ jurisdiction in settling disputes with other states that submitted the same declaration, at present only UK has such a declaration actually enforced. Moreover, the declaration submitted by a state can be, at any point, modified in order to exclude certain types of disputes or even totally withdrew, withdrawing ICJ’s jurisdiction over the state’s disputes just as well. From this viewpoint, I cannot help not wonder how do the principles of justice and solving differences on which ICJ was grounded blend with the reluctance of world powers such as the US, France, Germany or Japan to actually acknowledge the ICJ as the international organism for instituting world peace and solving states’ conflicts ?

The ICJ was created as the highest court in the United Nations System and it represents the main judicial mechanism which can solve disputes between states or provide legal advisory on legal issues. It was therefore a “creation of the states”, a regulatory legal organism whose legitimacy however, the same states who created it increasingly tend to question or to avoid, in most cases due to the collision between law and national or regional interests.

In my opinion, if the UN wants the ICJ to become a true guardian of peace and a fighter against impunity, it should have its own member-states setting the example and fully accepting ICJ’s jurisdiction over all their disputes, without making use of legal loopholes such as reservations or exceptions in order to prevent the ICJ from taking decisions which would not be fully advantageous to them.

I was honestly impressed by the frankness of Mrs. Blairon in answering the question related to the criticisms of ICJ in terms of the powers that Security Council members enjoy. It is known that the ICJ experienced major criticism by the fact that permanent members of the Security Council can use their veto-powers in order to prevent the enforcement of cases to which they had previously consented to be bound. Mrs. Blairon had a blunt reaction on the matter, simply reminding us that this is one of the principles stipulated in the UN Charter, which would have to be amended in order for any changes to happen in the current order of things.

Nevertheless, this issue was never actually brought into discussion, as the amendment of the UN charter is a delicate subject that nobody seems to have the availability of tackling. In many ways, it probably is much more comfortable for the world powers to have a pre-established network of loopholes at their disposal, which they know how to use in their best interest, rather than face the situation of actually having to comply with a clear and unambiguous UN charter, which would offer equal positions vis-à-vis the law for all countries.

As I stepped out of the impressive wrought-ironed portal of the Peace Palace, my eyes caught sight of a small monument that I hadn’t noticed on my way in, the “World Peace Flame”. After this experience at the International Court of Justice, I truly hope for this flame to never cease burning and, optimistically, I wish for it to shed more light over world justice as well.

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