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Nov 27, 2018

Inside the International Court of Justice

A pool of local media personalities continues with a tour of the seat of the International Court of Justice at The Hague.  Marleni Cuellar is among the journalists on assignment in the Netherlands. The highlight of the visit today was tour of the I.C.J.; it was a solemn occasion at an iconic building that houses the top court of the United Nations. Here is her report. 


The iconic peace palace is a landmark in The Hague. It’s listed as one of the top sites to visit when in the International City for peace and justice. The palace was built in 1913 and has been the home of the I.C.J. since 1946. While the building itself is beautiful and is known to be one of the most photographed buildings in the world, our purpose for this visit was to find out more about the functions of the I.C.J.

Our tour starts in the Red Room with a briefing on the court and its procedures. The group of Belizean journalists seated in the room and around the very table the judges of the I.C.J. would meet before heading into hearings. It’s not the deliberation room, but it is the space used to review evidence submissions before initiating the hearings. The place feels distinguished perhaps it’s because being seated in this room you’re surrounded by portraits of all except one of the past presidents of the court. We are told that the judges exit the red room into the Great Hall of Justice single file and carefully timed for the added theatre.


Marleni Cuellar

Marleni Cuellar

“One of the things we have been told repeatedly from the people who work here at the court is that the Peace palace itself adds a calming effect to the work that they are doing. As you step into the great hall, it is very evident that there are many overt attempts at being able to remind every person in the room the purpose of being here. From the French picture depicting peace for justice to the stained glass which carefully illustrates peace through the years. And all of this is to be able to reach what is really the ultimate goal of the International Court of Justice–achieving peace through law.”


The International Court of Justice is the top court of the United Nations. It has two primary roles: the first is to settle disputes between states that they want to be resolved in accordance with international law. This role is called the contentious function, and the decision is final and legally binding.

The second role of the I.C.J. is to provide advisory opinions – called the advisory function. In this case, states can request an opinion on a legal question. This can only be requested through a United Nations organ and agencies, like a resolution from the UN General Assembly. An advisory opinion, though, is not binding.

The expert we spoke to said that advisory opinions are not often requested. They estimated one case every five years seeks an advisory opinion.

The majority then are seeking a legal settlement to a dispute, contentious cases. Which would be the type of case the Belize Guatemala dispute would be classified if Belizeans vote yes in the upcoming referendum.

In the international legal system, all states are seen as equal, so to have the I.C.J. entertain a dispute, both countries must both agree on the I.C.J.’s jurisdiction or power to make a legal judgment. In the Belize/Guatemala case, it would be by special agreement.

Interestingly, in all the experts we have spoken to no one can recall a single case where the decision to go to I.C.J. was decided by the people of both states via a referendum.


But back to the tour:


Marleni Cuellar

“And here from the public gallery of the court itself. When you get a bird’s eye view of all those involved; any person can come and sit in on one of these hearings and sit in the opposite view of the fifteen sitting judges as the chairs you see in front of me display. But in the potential case of Belize versus Guatemala, in actuality seventeen judges as Belize and Guatemala will be allowed to appoint their very own ad hoc judges.”


There are fifteen elected judges in the court. Each judge serves nine-year terms and is all eligible for re-election. While all legal cultures are represented in the composition, the judges do not represent their country or their government but act as independent magistrates. If there were a case to be taken to the I.C.J. between Belize and Guatemala. Both countries would be able to appoint a person to sit as an ad-hoc judge for that case since neither state is represented in the current composition. The ad hoc judge does not have to be national. It should be someone familiar with the country’s position in the dispute. He or she, however, would not be allowed to be in contact with the state.

Another key person to be identified would be the agent – a representative of our country before the court. This person is usually an attorney, but doesn’t have to be, he or she must have extensive knowledge of Belize’s foreign policies and skilled in diplomacy, international law, and advocacy. This agent is the person who would meet with the President of the Court as well as the agent of the disputing state to agree upon any and all timeline for the proceeding. This meeting happens within a month after filing an application to the court.

Of course, these are roles that we will only know if and when they will be filled after Belizeans decide on April tenth, 2019.

Reporting for News Five, from the International Court of Justice at the Peace palace in The Hague, I am Marleni Cuellar.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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