Justice and International Law

The UN continues to promote justice and international law across its three pillars of work: international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

UN Photo/Martine Perret
An officer of the Timorese police force’s Special Operations Company during a public order training exercise in 2012, conducted by the Portuguese Formed Police Unit (FPU) with the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).

The Rule of Law

Promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels is at the heart of the United Nations’ mission.  Establishing respect for the rule of law is fundamental to achieving a durable peace in the aftermath of conflict, to the effective protection of human rights, and to sustained economic progress and development.  The principle that everyone – from the individual to the State itself – is accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, is a fundamental concept which drives much of the United Nations work.  The main United Nations organs, including the General Assembly and the Security Council, play essential roles in supporting Member States to strengthen the rule of law, as do many United Nations entities.

Responsibility for the overall coordination of rule of law work by the United Nations system rests with the Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group, chaired by the Deputy Secretary-General and supported by the Rule of Law Unit.  Members of the Group are the principals of 20 United Nations entities engaged in supporting Member States to strengthen the rule of law.  Providing support from headquarters to rule of law activities at the national level, the Secretary-General designated the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as the joint global focal point for the police, justice and corrections areas in the rule of law in post-conflict and other crisis situations. 

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which has its seat at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands, is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.  In 2014/15 the ICJ experienced a high level of judicial activity, ruling, in particular, on the case concerning the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Croatia v. Serbia).  The Court or its President also handed down nine orders and held public hearings in the joined cases concerning Certain Activities carried out by Nicaragua in the Border Area (Costa Rica v. Nicaragua) and Construction of a Road in Costa Rica along the San Juan River (Nicaragua v. Costa Rica) and in the case concerning the Obligation to Negotiate Access to the Pacific Ocean (Bolivia v. Chile).  The Court was also seized of the new contentious case of Maritime Delimitation in the Indian Ocean (Somalia v. Kenya).


The ad hoc tribunals and United Nations-assisted tribunals have continued to contribute to combating impunity and promoting accountability for the most serious crimes.  The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, in August 2014, convicted two Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, while the Special Tribunal for Lebanon continued the trial in absentia of five accused with respect to the attack against Rafiq Hariri and began the first of two contempt trials against commercial media entities.

International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court was established in 2002 to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other gross violations of human rights that constitute serious crimes under international law. The Court upheld the conviction of Thomas Lubanga in December 2014 and in March 2015 the Appeals Chamber established the principles and procedures for reparations for his victims. The Prosecutor opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine, and opened a second investigation into the situation in the Central African Republic, marking the ninth situation before the Court.

But it is Member States that retain the primary responsibility to investigate.  The United Nations continues to accord high priority to activities in support of strengthening national capacity to combat impunity for those crimes, in line with obligations under international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, and to provide remedies and reparations to the victims.

Law of the Sea

The Organization has continued to support the efforts of Member States to strengthen the legal regime for oceans, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Oceans have featured prominently in the work of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals and during the preparatory work for the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States.  

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