The International Court of Justice - Some case histories of disputes submitted to the court



Disputes over Territorial Claims and Territorial Possessions

In the Case Concerning Sovereignty over Certain Frontier Land (Belgium v. Netherlands), the court traced developments that had begun before the 1839 separation of the Netherlands from Belgium, and in its judgment, on 20 June 1959, it decided that sovereignty over the disputed plots belonged to Belgium.

In a dispute regarding sovereignty over certain islets and rocks lying between the British Channel island of Jersey and the French coast, the Minquier and Ecrehos Islands Case, the UK and France invoked historical facts going back to the 11th century. The UK started its argument by claiming title from the conquest of England in 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy. France started its argument by pointing out that the dukes of Normandy were vassals of the king of France and that the kings of England after 1066, in their capacity as dukes of Normandy, held the duchy in fee from the French kings. The court decided, on 17 November 1953, that "the sovereignty over the islets and rocks of the Ecrehos and Minquier groups, insofar as these islets and rocks are capable of appropriation, belongs to the United Kingdom."

In 1980, in a case brought by the United States concerning the seizure of its embassy in Teheran and the detention of its diplomatic and consular staff, the court held that Iran must release the hostages, hand back the embassy and make reparations. However, before the court fixed the amount of reparation, the case was withdrawn following agreement reached between the parties.

In the first frontier dispute between two African states, by a special agreement Burkina Faso and Mali submitted to a chamber of the court in October 1983 the question of the delimitation of part of the land frontier between them. In January 1986, the court ordered interim measures of protection in order to restore peace between the two states following armed hostilities at the end of 1985. The court gave its final judgment in December 1986, establishing the coordinates for the delimitation of the frontier.

In 1984, Nicaragua alleged that the United States was using military force against it and intervening in its internal affairs. The United States denied that the court had jurisdiction. After written and oral proceedings, the court found, however, that it had jurisdiction and that Nicaragua's application was admissible. The United States refused to recognize either this ruling or the subsequent 1986 judgment in which the court determined that the United States had acted in breach of its obligations toward Nicaragua, must desist from the actions in question, and should make reparation. The request by Nicaragua that the court determine the form and amount of reparation was withdrawn in 1991.

In a case between Libya and Chad, the two countries submitted to the court a territorial dispute relating to the Aozou Strip in the Sahara. Libya's claim as made in the case extended far to the south of that strip of land. The court, in a judgment of 3 February 1994, found wholly in favor of Chad. After an agreement on the implementation of the judgment had been concluded between the two parties, Libyan forces, monitored by an observer force deployed by the Security Council, withdrew from the Aozou strip by 31 May 1994.

Disputes Relating to the Law of the Sea

The Corfu Channel Case (UK v. Albania), the first case decided by the court, was brought before it at the suggestion of the Security Council. On 22 October 1946, two UK destroyers passing through the Corfu channel off the Albanian coast struck mines whose explosion caused the death of 46 seamen and damage to the ships. The British thereupon mineswept the channel. Albania claimed that it had not laid the mines. The court found Albania "responsible under international law for the explosions… and for the damage and loss of human life that resulted therefrom" and determined the compensation due to the UK at £843,947, equivalent to approximately US$ 2.4 million at that time. The court also found that the British mine-sweeping activities in Albanian territorial waters had violated international law. The unanimous rejection by the court of the British claim that the action was justified under the principle of "self-protection" constituted the first judicial finding that the use of force for self-help is in certain circumstances contrary to international law.

In 1981, Canada and the US submitted to a chamber of the court a question as to the course of the maritime boundary dividing the continental shelf and fisheries zones of the two countries in the Gulf of Maine area. In its judgment of 12 October 1984, the chamber of the court established the coordinates of that boundary. On 3 June 1985, the court delivered a judgment in a dispute relating to the delimitation of the continental shelf between Libya and Malta that had been referred to the court in 1982 by means of a special agreement specifically concluded for that purpose. On 14 June 1993, the court delivered a judgment in a maritime delimitation dispute between Denmark and Norway. On 16 March 2001, the court delivered a judgment in a maritime and land dispute between Bahrain and Qatar. On 10 October 2002, the court decided a case between Cameroon and Nigeria over the question of sovereignty over the Bakassi Peninsula, over the maritime boundary between the two states, and over sovereignty over part of Cameroon in the area of Lake Chad.

Disputes Involving Commercial Interests and Property Rights

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Case grew out of a law passed by Iran on 1 May 1951, terminating the concessions of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. and expropriating the company's refinery at Abadan, the largest in the world. On 5 July, the court ordered important "interim measures" enjoining the two governments to refrain from any action that might aggravate the dispute or hinder the operation of the company. The company was to continue under the same management as before nationalization, subject to such modification as agreed to by a special supervisory board, which the court requested the two governments to set up. A year later, however, on 22 July 1952, the court, in its final judgment, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction and lifted the "interim measures." The court found that the 1933 agreement, which gave the Iranian concession to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. and which the UK claimed had been violated by the act of nationalization, was merely a concessionary contract between Iran and a foreign corporation. The court ruled that the interpretation of such a contract was not one of the matters in regard to which Iran had accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the court. The controversy was settled by negotiations in 1953, after the Mossadegh regime in Iran had been replaced by another government.

The Barcelona Traction Case (Belgium v. Spain) arose out of a 1948 adjudication by a provincial Spanish law court of the bankruptcy of a company incorporated in Canada with subsidiaries operating in Barcelona. Belgium was seeking reparation for damages alleged to have been sustained by Belgian shareholders in the company as a result of the Spanish court's adjudication, which Belgium claimed was contrary to international law. The court, on 5 February 1970, found that the Belgian government lacked the standing to exercise diplomatic protection of Belgian shareholders in a Canadian company with respect to measures taken against that company in Spain.

(The complete text of all of the Court's decisions—from 1946 up to the present date—can be accessed at the ICJ's web site at www.icj-cij.org/icjwww/idecisions.htm .)

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