The International Court of Justice Reaffirms the Protection of Humanitarian Goods in Times of Sanctions and Boycotts


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

17 Oct 2018 – In July 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran brought a case against the U.S. policy of sanctions to the World Court in The Hague.  After the U.S.A. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commonly called the “Iran Nuclear Deal”, the U.S. announced that it was reintroducing economic and financial sanctions against Iran, and that additional sanctions would begin on 5 November 2018.  Iran cited a 1955 Treaty with the U.S.A. as the legal basis for its complaint.

The 15-member Court published its unanimous decision on 3 October 2018 stating that the U.S. “must remove” sanctions that could stop food, medical supplies, humanitarian products and products needed for civil aviation.  The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied that although the U.S. considered the case without merit and was not bound by the Court ruling, the U.S. had already removed medicine and humanitarian items from its sanctions list.  In addition, the U.S. was withdrawing from the 1955 Treaty which it already considered as no longer valid.  The U.S. Government would review all its treaties to avoid their being cited in World Court proceedings.

The U.S.A. is party to some 70 treaties in which the World Court has jurisdiction.  Each of these treaties provides that any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the treaty may be brought to the World Court by any party to the treaty.  Some of the treaties have many parties; others as with the Iran Treaty are bilateral.

The decision of the International Court of Justice reaffirms the protection of children in States under sanctions and boycotts.  The Association of World Citizens had raised this issue in Geneva during the negotiations that led to the Convention of the Rights of the Child adopted 20 November 1989.  World Citizens had raised the same issue in the mid-1990s because of the wide scale suffering of children and pregnant women during the sanctions against Iraq and also the U.S. boycott of Cuba. Thus the Court decision will make this protection a norm of world law.

The International Court of Justice, often called the World Court, is the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice associated with the League of Nations.  When the United Nations was established in 1945, the International Court of Justice was created as the principle judicial organ of the U.N.  It is composed of 15 judges who are elected by the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council.

According to the Statute of the Court, the judges should be chosen with a view to representation of the principal legal systems of the world.  The judges are expected to be independent and not to take instructions from governments. Only States may be parties in cases brought before the Court.  An individual cannot bring a case before the Court nor can a firm.  The United Nations and its Specialized Agencies may request advisory opinions from the Court on legal matters arising from their activities.

States have hardly been lining up to take cases to the Court.  For long periods, the Court has no cases before it or very few.  This makes the Court one of the most underutilized of intergovernmental organizations.

World Citizens have stressed that slowly but surely, the United Nations plays the key role in the articulation of the values, norms, and laws of the world community.  The U.N. General Assembly was mandated in Article 13 of the Charter to encourage “the progressive development of international law and its codification.”  The Assembly has done so in a number of ways.  It created the International Law Commission in 1949, which has usefully reviewed, updated, and codified traditional fields of international law leading to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in 1969.

More directly, the General Assembly has proclaimed the standards of international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which has become the world standard and the guide for both regional and national human rights law.  The General Assembly also proclaimed the standards for behavior among States with the Declaration of the Principles of International Law Relating to Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States according to the Charter of the United Nations (1970).

The General Assembly has organized special conferences for drafting international law such as the law of the sea that produced the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.  The U.N. General Assembly has also created the U.N. Commission for International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) to deal more particularly with the private law aspects of international economic relations.

Non-governmental organizations, such as the Association of World Citizens, have contributed to building and strengthening a world peace structure composed of world law and world institutions that will command such general acceptance that resort to law will replace unilateral action of States based on narrow domestic political considerations.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Oct 2018.

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