Skip to Main Content

International Justice

Guide from the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis.

Q&A on International Justice

Q.: What is an international court?

A.: Five basic elements characterize the international courts and tribunals that have the broadest and most sustained impact. Those courts are permanent, or at least long-standing; have been established by an international legal instrument; use international law to decide cases; decide cases on the basis of rules of procedure that pre-exist the case and usually cannot be modified by the parties; and issue judgments that are legally binding on the parties to the dispute.

Q.: What types of international courts are there?

A.: There are four basic types of international courts: state-only courts, like the “World Court,” now the International Court of Justice; human rights courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights; courts of regional economic and/or political integration agreements, such as the European Court of Justice; and international criminal courts, such as the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Q.: What is an international judge?

A.: International judges serve on courts and tribunals established by global or regional bodies to address issues of justice that cross national borders. An international judge serves on a body whose jurisdiction includes more than one sovereign nation, or on a body established by an international organization to deliver justice in a country where the legal structure is deemed insufficient to address a severe situation, such as the aftermath of ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Q.: How are international judges selected?

A.: The route to an international judicial appointment invariably starts with being chosen by one’s own government as the national nominee. The nomination process is often shrouded in mystery, since information about the decision-making has traditionally been restricted to governing elites (politicians, senior civil servants, and, very occasionally, members of the bench and bar and academia). Although the basic legal instruments of international courts provide for certain minimal requirements that judges should meet, it is not always clear how governments assess candidates. If the court in question is composed of fewer judges than the number of nominating states, an election will decide who is chosen; otherwise the national pick will be just appointed, sometimes after some level of institutional vetting.

Q: Under what guidelines do international judges operate? 

A: Only a few international courts have adopted formal standards of conduct and ethics for their judges. However, various standards of judicial ethics have been outlined by other parties. Examples are the Bangalore Draft Code of Judicial Conduct (for judges generally)  and the Burgh House Principles (for international judges specifically). The International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life provides information on “Ethics and the International Judiciary,” including links to these principles as well as to the codes of the International Criminal Court, the Caribbean Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights, here.

Q.: Why are international judges important?

A.: International judges have convicted and sentenced the perpetrators of some of the most horrific and extensive crimes of our time. They preside over regional and global institutions that enforce rules on international trade and commerce and that persuade and sometimes compel national governments to change their own laws to comply with transnational norms. The work of international judges has provided a forum for small countries to confront larger ones and for individuals to confront governments. International courts adjudicate issues of human rights, unfair trade practices, and (to some extent) the global environment, offering the possibility of correctives to unfettered growth.