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UK Mission to the United Nations

New York

London 18:09, 02 Jan 2013
New York 13:09, 02 Jan 2013
Last updated at 15:27 (UK time) 5 May 2010

International law

UN Photo/Evan Schneider

President of ICTY Addresses General Assembly

Recent developments

On 20 and 21 October 2009 the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly debated the scope and application of universal jurisdiction. On 4 June 2009 the Security Council discussed the completion strategies of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. 


The United Nations makes an important contribution to international law, in particular by working to promote its codification and development in three main ways: 

  • The International Law Commission (ILC) is a subsidiary body established by the General Assembly in 1949 pursuant to Article 13 of the UN Charter which encourages the Assembly to promote the progressive development of international law.  The ILC comprises of 34 experts (including Sir Michael Wood, from the UK) 
  • The Sixth (Legal) Committee of the General Assembly meets each autumn to consider a range of legal matters including the elaboration of a Comprehensive Terrorism Convention, the criminal accountability of UN personnel, and the rule of law at the national and international levels.
  • The General Assembly may also convene international conferences to carry forward issues of international law (e.g. UN Conference on the Law of the Sea).

Courts and Tribunals

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Its Statute is an integral part of the UN Charter.  The Court consists of 15 members, including one judge from the UK (Judge Christopher Greenwood).  Members of the Court are elected for periods of nine years.

The ICJ has jurisdiction to deal with disputes between States and give advisory opinions. 

In contentious inter-State cases it is the function of the ICJ to decide, in accordance with international law, disputes which are submitted to it by States. This includes cases that the parties agree to refer to it and other cases provided for in certain treaties. It also has compulsory jurisdiction where a State has declared, under Article 36 of the ICJ Statute, that it recognises the jurisdiction of the Court in legal disputes as compulsory in relation to other States accepting the same obligations.  The UK is a strong supporter of the Court and, alone of the Permanent Members of the Security Council, accepts the Court's compulsory jurisdiction.

The ICJ may also give advisory opinions on legal questions at the request of other organs of the UN and on legal questions from the UN’s specialised agencies.

The Security Council has established two ad hoc criminal tribunals to prosecute individuals responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR).  The UK strongly supports the work of these Tribunals in combating impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious international crimes in these regions and thereby contributing to the restoration of peace and security in these regions.

In 2004 the Security Council endorsed the Tribunals' Completion Strategies under which they set a target date for completing all trials and appeals by 2010.  The Presidents and Prosecutors of the two Tribunals report to the Security Council on implementation of the Completion Strategy every six months.  Current indications are that the Tribunals will not complete all their work until 2013.  The Security Council is also currently examining options for the establishment of a residual mechanism to carry out certain essential functions of the Tribunals (eg witness protection, sentence enforcement, archive management) after the Tribunals close their doors.

We are also committed to the work of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and have provided these Tribunals with substantial financial support.