8 November 2021

The Registrar of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has a clear message to States: it is always better to approach the Court to settle a dispute between nations, rather than choosing armed conflict.

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Composed of fifteen judges, elected for a term of nine years, it was established in June 1945 under the UN Charter, beginning its work in April 1946. Based in The Hague, the Netherlands, it is the only one of the six principal organs of the UN, that is not located in New York.

The Court has a dual mission, consisting, on the one hand, of settling disputes of a legal nature submitted to it by States, in accordance with international law, and on the other, giving advisory opinions on legal questions submitted.

Since August 1, 2019, Belgian jurist Philippe Gautier, has held the post of Registrar, the title of the the senior-most official who heads the Secretariat which assists the Court.

Elected for a seven-year term, he succeeded Philippe Couvreur upon his retirement, who held the position from 2000 to 2019. Before taking up his position at the ICJ, Mr. Gautier was Registrar of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, where he had served since 2001.

He recently visited UN Headquarters in New York, where he found time to speak in-depth with UN News. He explained how the ICJ has adapted to the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, discussed important cases coming up before the country, and what he hopes to achieve in the Secretariat’s top job, in the coming years.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The UN had to adjust to the Covid-19 pandemic to continue its vital work. How is the ICJ functioning during the pandemic?

Philippe Gautier: I could say in a provocative way, it's business as usual. It is not absolutely false, in the sense that as far as the core business of the Court, I mean the judicial activities, I think we've completed the program of work, the number of hearings and cases the Court should deal with. There was no real interruption.

For two, three weeks, I have to confess, we had to adjust and to move to another era with IT [information technology]. There was just one hearing postponed but otherwise we could organize meetings with some electronic platforms and thereafter, hearings could be organized first with video link only and after a while, hybrid meetings.

It means that you had judges in the Great Hall of Justice in The Hague, some of them participating remotely through video link, and you had also representatives of the parties to the dispute appearing in the room with a limited number, four or five, and others lawyers pleading from Washington or Paris or other cities.

That was quite an achievement and I have to say the team and the Registry was responding in a positive tone. It was comforting to see that, faced with a challenge like that, we could give an efficient response.

If you look at the activities of the Court, there was no slowdown. For the human cost of course, when you have to organize hybrid meetings, you need more interpreters.

An outside view of the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands), which has been the seat of the International Court of Justice since 1946.
UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ
An outside view of the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands), which has been the seat of the International Court of Justice since 1946.

Two years ago, you met UN News for an interview. You had just started as the Registrar and you said, then, that the Court was getting increasingly popular with Member States. Two years later, do you still think it is the case?

Philippe Gautier: I do think so. Sure, with the pandemic, there was perhaps not more cases done than in the past. After we met, there are four new cases, which is a normal pace.

For the time being, there are 15 cases on the docket. I mentioned the term unprecedented record two years ago. It's still valid. It shows that whenever there is a way to bring a dispute to the court, States used that.

Whenever they feel the need to bring a dispute to the Court, the problem is sometimes that you need to find the proper way to bring the matter to the Court and recently (we had) Azerbaijan and Armenia. First Armenia introduced an application against Azerbaijan and two weeks after, the opposite, concerning alleged violation of the Convention on elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

Of course, the dispute between the two States is a bit broader but the way to bring your specific issue in dispute, whether this Convention has been breached, it's the only way where this dispute - through one single aspect - can be brought to the Court.

It's also useful to mention that in those two most recent cases each State requires the Court to indicate provisional measures. That means that whenever there is an urgent situation which in the view of the party concerned, requires that measures be ordered immediately in order to prevent irreparable harm, there is this possibility to submit a request to the Court. It's still attractive very much, but it's not a given. The jurisdiction of the Court is consent-based and you need to encourage States to realize that it's better to bring a dispute to the Court.

Philippe Gautier, Registrar at International court of Justice (ICJ), sits down for an interview with UN News.
UN News/Florence Westergard
Philippe Gautier, Registrar at International court of Justice (ICJ), sits down for an interview with UN News.

You have a seven-year term. What are you proud to have achieved during your first two years and what do you hope to achieve in the remaining years?

Philippe Gautier: If you envisage a seven year tenure, it's not a sprint, it is more a marathon. You need first to adjust to the team, to see what is the pace or you need to deal with issues. What I can say, the Court and the Registry are functioning in a very efficient manner. And sure, when I arrived the Registry was already functioning, but I think that continues to improve.

When I met with the staff. There was a town hall. I mentioned that there are three points we need to work on: the staff, the budget and the building; three aspects where we need to ensure that you have a comfortable environment I would say.

In staff matters, I have injected some new procedure rules. That's something which is important to ensure predictability, to show that the rules apply to everybody in the same manner. And we need for the future to simplify a bit the way of functioning.

Sometimes, the world’s court, as far as the Registry is concerned, uses methods from the past, which are good, but sometimes it may be simplified.

Regarding the building, there is a problem of asbestos. It's not yet solved. It is monitored. There is no risk on the basis of inspection conducted but that's something we need to work on and we are for the time being engaged in consultation with the host country.

And for the budget, [we have to make sure] at least the Court could function with its budget. It is not a struggle, but you need to be very attentive and to be alert, and to ensure that resources are granted to the Court which is a part of the UN, but remote from New York.

It's only one per cent of the UN budget. This is sometimes a drop of water in the ocean. But it's an organ which is functioning very efficiently and with 15 cases, it's at its best.

Could you give us more details on the cases that are pending before the Court?

Philippe Gautier: There are 15 cases and it's interesting because when you look at those cases it gives you probably a snapshot of problems, issues which are of concern for the international community, areas where there are disputes.

The first is really delimitation, maritime or land boundary, or problems connected therewith. It's very sensitive. For10 square kilometres, countries may go to extreme solutions sometimes. It is always better to settle that peacefully.

For the time being we have five cases in this portfolio for delimitation of maritime boundary or land boundary, or problems connected therewith. For example Nicaragua v. Colombia, two cases; Equatorial Guinea v. Gabon, Guatemala v. Belize, Guyana v. Venezuela.

On 12 October the Court rendered its judgment on Somalia v. Kenya case, a maritime delimitation issue. Just at that time, there were 16 cases pending.

Human rights are also a field of international law in respect of which there are cases. For the two recent cases I refered to, Armenia v. Azerbaijan, Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

Also, the case between Ukraine and Russia, related to this Convention and also the Convention on the prohibition of the financing of terrorism. Environmental cases.

Between Chile and Bolivia, it's an issue relating to the use of an international watercourse. And there is a pending case concerning the construction of a dam between Hungary and Slovakia.

There is also a case concerning the interpretation of a bilateral convention and that concerns Iran and the United States.

A case concerning diplomatic relations, that is the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a case brought by Palestine against United States. When I refer to human rights, I mentioned three. I should have mentioned four because there is a high profile case; also the Gambia versus Myanmar, a case concerning the alleged violation of the Convention against genocide.

The last one, there is a case of reparation in the aftermath of an armed conflict. That’s a case between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) versus Uganda. The Court already delivered a judgment in the past and considered that Uganda was liable, because of breach of international law and the next phase was really to determine the amount of compensation. That's a case under consideration, and the decision should be rendered soon.

A view of the courtroom as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivers its Judgment in a case at the Peace Palace in The Hague. (October 2018)
UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek
A view of the courtroom as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivers its Judgment in a case at the Peace Palace in The Hague. (October 2018)

What would you like people to know about the ICJ? What would like to tell people?

Philippe Gautier: We may consider that our clients are the States, that we need to deal with representatives of States, lawyers, prominent lawyers appearing before the court, but, we need the support of the public opinion.

The whole process of peaceful settlement of dispute means that instead of waging a war, you go to an international court to settle peacefully your dispute.

That is something which affects - which is of interest to - every human being, and that is not so well known. And outreach is something we need to develop at the Court.

We are not doing nothing. We celebrated the 75th anniversary. There are two films on the website of the ICJ. One is a virtual visit which gives you some insight but there is a film of 12 minutes explaining what ICJ is doing. We have - it's nearly published - a book for the 75th anniversary but it's a book intended not for lawyers necessarily. It is to explain, in simple and accurate terms, different aspects of the procedure, of the questions dealt with by the Court. It will be issued in November.

 

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