The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Composed of fifteen judges elected for a nine-year term, it was created in June 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations, beginning its work in April 1946. Based in The Hague, the Netherlands, it is the sole of the six main organs of the UN, which 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 hand, of giving advisory opinions on legal questions which may arise. are submitted to him.
Since August 1, 2019, the Belgian lawyer Philippe Gautier has held the post of Registrar, the title of the highest official who heads the secretariat which assists the Court.
Elected for a seven-year term, he succeeded Philippe Couvreur, who retired from 2000 to 2019. Before taking up his post at the ICJ, Mr. Gautier was Registrar of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea , where he served since 2001.
He recently visited the 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 business ahead of the country and what he hopes to achieve in the most senior position of the Secretariat, in the years to come.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The UN has had to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic to continue its vital work. How does the ICJ work during the pandemic?
Philippe Gautier: I could say in a provocative way, it’s business as usual. This is not absolutely wrong, in the sense that with regard to the core business of the Court, I mean the judicial activities, I think we have completed the work program, the number of hearings and the number of cases that the Court should deal with. There was no real interruption.
For two, three weeks, I must admit, we had to adapt and move to another era with IT [information technology]. There was only one audition postponed but otherwise we could organize meetings with some electronic platforms and subsequently the hearings could be organized first with video link only and after a while hybrid meetings. .
This means that you had judges in the Great Hall of Justice in The Hague, some of them participating remotely by video link, and you also had representatives of the disputing parties appearing in the hall with a limited number, four or five, and other lawyers plead from Washington or Paris or other cities.
It was quite an achievement and I must say that the team and the Registry responded in a positive tone. It was heartwarming to see that in the face of such a challenge, we could provide an effective response.
If you look at the activities of the Court, there has been no slowdown. For the human cost of course, when you have to organize hybrid meetings, you need more interpreters.
UN Photo / CIJ-CIJ
Two years ago you met UN News for an interview. You had just started as a Registrar and then said that the Court was becoming more and more popular with the Member States. Two years later, do you still think that’s the case?
Philippe Gautier: I think. Of course, with the pandemic there may not have been more cases treated than in the past. After we met, there are four new cases, which is a normal pace.
At the moment, there are 15 cases on the agenda. I mentioned the unprecedented record term two years ago. It is still valid. This shows that whenever there is a way to bring a dispute to court, states have used it.
Whenever they feel the need to bring a dispute to the Court, sometimes the problem is that you have to find the appropriate way to bring the case to the Court and recently (we had) Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia first filed a complaint against Azerbaijan and two weeks later the reverse, concerning an alleged violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Of course, the dispute between the two states is a bit broader but how to bring your specific issue to dispute, if this Convention has been violated, that is the only way that this dispute – through one aspect – can be brought to court.
It is also worth mentioning that in these two most recent cases, each state requests the Court to indicate provisional measures. This means that whenever there is an emergency situation which, in the opinion of the party concerned, requires action to be ordered immediately in order to avoid irreparable harm, there is this possibility to submit a request. at the court. It’s still very attractive, but it’s not obvious. The jurisdiction of the Court is based on consent, and you should encourage States to understand that it is better to take a dispute to the Court.
UN News / Florence Westergard
You have a seven-year term. What are you proud to have accomplished in your first two years and what do you hope to accomplish in the following years?
Philippe Gautier: If you’re considering a seven-year term, it’s not a sprint, it’s more of a marathon. You have to adapt to the team first, see what the pace is or you have to deal with the issues. What I can say, the Court and the Registry are working very efficiently. And of course when I arrived the Registry was already working, but I think it continues to improve.
When I met the staff. There was a town hall. I mentioned that there are three points we need to work on: staff, budget and building; three aspects where we have to make sure you have a comfortable environment, I would say.
In terms of personnel, I have injected new rules of procedure. This is something that is important to ensure predictability, to show that the rules apply to everyone the same. And it is necessary for the future to simplify the operation a little.
Sometimes the court of the world, as far as the Registry is concerned, uses methods from the past, which are good, but sometimes it can be simplified.
Regarding the building, there is an asbestos problem. It is not yet resolved. He is being watched. There is no risk on the basis of the inspection carried out, but it is a point on which we must work and we are for the moment engaged in consultation with the host country.
And for the budget, [we have to make sure] at least the court could operate within its budget. It is not a fight, but we must be very attentive and vigilant, and ensure that resources are granted to the Court, which is part of the UN, but far from New York.
It is only one percent of the UN budget. It is sometimes a drop of water in the ocean. But it is a body that works very well and with 15 boxes, it is at best.
Could you give us more details on the cases pending before the Court?
Philippe Gautier: There are 15 cases and it’s interesting because when you look at those cases, it probably gives you some insight into the issues, the issues that are of concern to the international community, the areas where there are disputes.
The first is really the delimitation, the maritime or land border, or the problems associated with it. It is very sensitive. For 10 square kilometers, countries can sometimes go towards extreme solutions. It is always better to settle this peacefully.
At the moment, we have five cases in this portfolio for maritime or land border delineation, or related issues. For example Nicaragua v. Colombia, two cases; Equatorial Guinea v. Gabon, Guatemala v. Belize, Guyana v. Venezuela.
On October 12, the Court delivered its judgment in Somalia v. Kenya, a question of maritime delimitation. Just then there were 16 pending cases.
Human rights are also an area of ââinternational law for which there are cases. For the two recent cases to which I referred, Armenia v. Azerbaijan, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Likewise, the case between Ukraine and Russia, linked to this Convention as well as to the Convention on the prohibition of the financing of terrorism. Environmental cases.
Between Chile and Bolivia, it is a question 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 which concerns Iran and the United States.
A case concerning diplomatic relations, that is, the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, a case brought by Palestine against the United States. When I talk about human rights, I mentioned three. I should have mentioned four because there is a high profile case; also Gambia v Myanmar, a case concerning the alleged violation of the Genocide Convention.
The last, there is a case of reparation in the aftermath of an armed conflict. This is a case between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. The Court has already ruled in the past and held that Uganda was responsible, due to a violation of international law, and that the next phase was really to determine the amount of compensation. It is a file under study, and the decision should be rendered shortly.
UN Photo / CIJ-CIJ / Frank van Beek
What would you like people to know about the ICJ? What would you like to tell people?
Philippe Gautier: We can consider that our clients are the States, that we have to deal with representatives of States, lawyers, eminent lawyers who appear in court, but, we need the support of public opinion.
The whole process of peaceful dispute resolution means that instead of going to war, you go to an international tribunal to settle your dispute peacefully.
It is something which touches – which interests – every human being, and it is not so well known. And awareness is something we need to develop at court.
We don’t do anything. We celebrated the 75th anniversary. There are two films on the ICJ website. One is a virtual tour that gives you an overview, but there is a 12 minute film explaining what the ICJ is doing. We have – it’s almost published – a book for the 75th anniversary, but it’s a book that is not necessarily intended for lawyers. It is a question of explaining, in simple and precise terms, various aspects of the procedure, of the questions dealt with by the Court. It will be released in November.