16 April 2021

Seventy-five years ago, the International Court of Justice held its opening session in a solemn inaugural sitting at the Peace Palace in The Hague in the presence of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, among other dignitaries. That same day, in Geneva, the Assembly of the League of Nations adopted a resolution dissolving the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), the predecessor of the International Court of Justice. That date, 18 April 1946, marks therefore the “passing of the torch” of international adjudication to the new Court, which held great promise as the principal judicial organ of the newly created United Nations.

The International Court of Justice inherited from PCIJ not only a rich jurisprudence and its iconic seat, the Peace Palace, but also the nickname of “World Court”. The moniker suited a standing court with the scope to settle disputes between United Nations Member States from all regions and on any topic. The Court’s first Judges, who made their solemn declarations at that inaugural sitting, came from five continents.

In one important respect, however, the reference to a “World” Court was misleading. When the Charter of the United Nations was adopted, more than 750 million people—almost a third of the world’s population—lived in colonies or non-self-governing territories. A small number of States were central to the conclusion of important post-Second World War treaties and to the institutional architecture that includes the International Court of Justice. There were 51 members of the United Nations in 1945. Representatives of 44 States participated in the Committee of Jurists, which was responsible for drafting the Court’s Statute.

Much has changed in the ensuing 75 years. There are now 193 United Nations Member States, each one entitled to sovereign equality under the Charter of the United Nations. All contribute to the formation, interpretation and application of international law and to the construction and operation of its institutions. The contemporary membership of the United Nations is diverse in so many ways, including in culture, language, legal traditions, political systems and levels of development. This diversity enriches the field of international law while at the same time complicating the search for common ground in response to the many challenges that the world faces.

The present-day International Court of Justice must be viewed against this backdrop. The strength of the Court, measured in terms of the quality of its jurisprudence and the received legitimacy of its judgments, depends primarily on the selection of Judges who are impeccably qualified to serve on the Court, hailing from countries in all regions of the world and trained in diverse legal traditions. But Members of the Court are not alone in shaping the Court’s decisions. We hear arguments from the agents of States and their counsel. We are supported by a small, hard-working Registry. And we have the privilege of welcoming each year a group of 15 “Judicial Fellows”, about whom I shall have more to say.

The inaugural sitting of the International Court of Justice, held on 18 April 1946 in the Great Hall of Justice of the Peace Palace, The Hague (ICJ archives).

It is a true honour to take a seat on the bench of the Great Hall of Justice in the splendid Peace Palace. Each time that I gaze out at the delegations representing parties, however, I am struck that their composition bears too much resemblance to the groups of persons who gathered in 1945 to draft the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the Court. Very few of the counsel are from developing countries and almost all, regardless of nationality, are men.

This is an unsatisfactory situation. While there are many aspects of international law on which jurists of all stripes can be expected to agree, we must acknowledge that there is no single, homogenized answer to many legal questions that arise in international disputes. As much as each individual may aspire to a cosmopolitan perspective, we must all have the humility to appreciate that we are shaped by our respective experiences. We must actively seek differing perspectives and promote open exchanges of ideas, especially with those whose views differ from our own.

I have looked to these ideals to guide my work as a Judge of the International Court of Justice, and now as its President. In line with this approach, I attach great importance to the Court’s Judicial Fellowship Programme, which allows its Judges to play a role in the development of future leaders in the field of public international law. Each year, through this programme, the Court selects 15 recent law graduates who have studied public international law to come to the Court to develop their expertise in the field. Each Fellow is assigned to a Judge for a period of about 10 months, during which they attend public hearings of the Court, research and write memoranda on legal questions and factual aspects of pending cases and are involved in other aspects of the Court’s work. In addition, participants have the opportunity to become part of The Hague’s thriving community of international lawyers, attending lectures and participating in other events relating to the many prominent institutions based in this “City of Peace and Justice”.

Established in 1999, when the New York University School of Law offered to provide awards to five of its former students to serve as “University Trainees” at the Court, the programme—later renamed the Judicial Fellowship Programme—has attracted an ever-growing number of candidates and sponsoring institutions. This year, for instance, 29 different institutions nominated a total of 55 candidates for the 15 positions available in the Programme’s 2021-2022 cohort.

Judicial Fellows are not self-funded interns. Instead, participation requires financial support from the sponsoring university, which undertakes to fund the stipend, health insurance and travel costs of selected candidates. Over the years, it has become clear to the Court that the funding required from sponsoring institutions has tended to discourage less-endowed universities, particularly those based in developing countries, from nominating candidates. While participating universities in developed countries have been responsive to requests from members of the Court that they nominate graduates from underrepresented regions, the number of candidates from those regions has remained too low.

Official portrait of the President of the International Court of Justice, Joan E. Donoghue.

Thus, during the Presidency of my predecessor, Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf, the Court proposed the establishment of a Trust Fund for the Judicial Fellowship Programme. Thanks to the efforts of a core group of States representing all of the world’s geopolitical regions, a resolution requesting the United Nations Secretary-General to establish and administer the Trust Fund was co-sponsored by 86 Member States and adopted by the General Assembly by consensus in December 2020.

Pursuant to Assembly resolution 75/129, the Trust Fund will fund participation in the Judicial Fellowship Programme of a number of selected candidates who are nationals of developing countries and are sponsored by universities based in developing countries. It will enhance the geographic and linguistic diversity of the participants in the Programme and will provide a training opportunity that would not otherwise be available to these young jurists. States, international financial institutions, donor agencies, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and natural and juridical persons can make voluntary financial contributions to the Fund, which will be administered by the United Nations Secretary-General. In order to preserve its impartiality and independence, the Court will not directly engage with individual Member States to mobilize contributions to the Trust Fund, nor will it be directly involved in the administration of the financial resources collected.

Certain aspects of the implementation of the Trust Fund are being dealt with by the United Nations Secretariat as of this writing. The Court looks forward to the establishment of mechanisms that will allow contributions to be made in the coming months, in the hope that the Trust Fund can be used in support of successful candidates nominated by eligible universities in the next call for applications, which will be published in October 2021.

I have been fortunate during my time at the Court to get to know many of the talented young lawyers who have participated in the Judicial Fellowship Programme. One of my great delights is to watch as they progress in their careers in international law. It is exciting to read their scholarly works and especially to see them appear as counsel before the Court. I am enthusiastic both about the future contributions of this group and the enhanced diversity that the Trust Fund will bring to the Judicial Fellowship Programme.


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