Friday, December 2, 2022

The role of the Court’s Registry: an actor behind the scenes

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Diplomat Magazine
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DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands. Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. "Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions." Dr. Mayelinne De Lara, Publisher

By H.E. Mr. Philippe Gautier, Registrar of the International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, consists of 15 Judges, elected by both the General Assembly and the Security Council. Its main function is to adjudicate on inter-State disputes through binding judgments and to render advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by the United Nations or other international institutions authorized to do so.

In the discharge of its duties, the Court is assisted by a Secretariat, “the Registry”, which provides support in legal, administrative and budgetary matters. The role of the Registry, which consists of 117 staff members, is often unknown, and it seems therefore useful to provide an insight into its contribution to the functioning of international justice.

First of all, it is important to underline that the Court is the only principal organ of the United Nations which is sitting away from Headquarters in New York. A direct consequence of this situation is that a number of administrative services have to be provided in situ, in The Hague: legal and linguistic services; organization of hearings and Court meetings; personnel and procurement; building’s maintenance and security; IT; finances; information and secretarial services. In other words, the management of the Registry is similar to the functioning of a small international institution. A certain level of autonomy of the Court’s Registry vis-à-vis the United Nations Secretariat is equally important to ensure the independent functioning of a judicial institution. This specific situation explains that the staff of the Registry is subject to its own staff Regulations and is headed by a Registrar elected by the Judges of the Court and accountable to it. Likewise, the Court adopts its own draft budget (which represents less than 1 per cent of the regular budget of the United Nations), which is then submitted, for approval, to the General Assembly of the United Nations by the Secretary-General, “together with such observations as he or she may deem desirable”.[1]

The role of the Registrar includes a wide range of duties of administrative, judicial and diplomatic nature. A significant aspect of this role is to act as the channel of communications to and from the Court. The Registrar serves as intermediary in all exchanges between the Court and the parties for the purposes of a given case. In this regard, the Registrar is the recipient of all case-related correspondence and documents, including, first and foremost, those which institute proceedings before the Court. As stated in Article 40, paragraph 1, of the Statute of the Court: “Cases are brought before the Court, as the case may be, either by the notification of the special agreement or by a written application addressed to the Registrar.” For example, in the case of an application, it is common for the Agent appointed by the applicant State – often the ambassador to the Netherlands or a senior official from their ministry of foreign affairs – to meet with the Registrar. This triggers the Registry to take a number of steps: the case is entered on the Court’s General List and a certified copy of the application is transmitted to the respondent State. Copies of the application are sent to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and to all States entitled to appear before the Court (this includes all the 193 member States of the United States which are parties to the Statute of the Court, annexed to the United Nations Charter).

The Registrar remains the principal interlocutor of the representatives of the parties throughout the lifecycle of the case in which they are involved: during the written phase of the proceedings, the Registrar receives from and transmits to the parties copies of all communications, notifications and documents relating to the case. The Court, and its Registry, may be requested to act fast in some situations, for example when a party requests the Court to order provisional measures to protect its rights pending the Court’s final decision in the case. In such instances, which now occur more frequently in the Court’s work, the Registry urgently mobilizes resources to enable the Court to address the request swiftly, as a matter of priority.

It is also the Registrar’s responsibility to ensure that information concerning the Court and its activities is made accessible to Governments, legal practitioners, academic institutions and the public at large. To that end, the Court regularly organizes outreach activities, including for the diplomatic community in The Hague. The latest of these initiatives, which took on 15 September 2022, was organized jointly with the Permanent Court of Arbitration. On that occasion, the Secretary-General of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the Registrar of the International Court of Justice each provided an overview of the work of their respective institutions housed in the Peace Palace. The briefing was attended by over one hundred participants, who were given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the work of the courts, in parallel sessions conducted both in English and French.

The Registry’s outreach activities take several other forms, including presentations, tours, educational workshops and conferences. The Court’s website and social media platforms, multimedia material and various publications, also contain a number of useful information on the activities and proceedings of the Court. Also worth mentioning is the Court’s Judicial Fellowship Programme, which enables recent law graduates to improve their understanding of public international law and the Court’s procedures, by working under the supervision of a Judge for a period of ten months. In 2021, following the adoption by consensus of Resolution 75/129 by the General Assembly, a trust fund for the Judicial Fellowship Programme was established, granting fellowship awards to selected candidates who are nationals of developing countries from universities based in developing countries, thereby improving the geographic diversity within the participants in the Programme. For the 2022/23 cohort, 3 Judicial Fellows benefit from the trust fund.

Through these various initiatives, the Registry endeavours to engage with the diplomatic community of The Hague. States, from all regions of the world, are the main users of the Court and their representatives should feel “at home” at the Peace Palace. It is therefore crucial for the Court and its Registry to be able to explain to the members of the diplomatic community the role of the Court in the settlement of international disputes.


[1] Regulation 2.14 of the Financial Regulations and Rules of the United Nations.

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