Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Assembly of the League of Nations created the first world court in the hope of securing legal solutions to international disputes.

Summary of Event

Although ecclesiastical courts existed prior to the emergence of the modern state system, the post-World War I era lacked an international court to which contentious cases could be submitted. As a result, most disputes between and among nations were resolved through diplomacy, conflict, or arbitration. Arbitration’s roots of this method hail back to the classical times, particularly to the ancient Greeks, who developed extensive procedures for settling disputes. However, in modern times, arbitration tended to be ad hoc in nature. In contrast, permanent courts would provide governments with reliable and continuous institutional bodies before which countries could argue their legal disputes and seek binding judgments. Efforts to develop regional machinery for the settlement of legal (as opposed to political) disputes included the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which proposed the development of a system for the pacific settlement of disputes that eventually resulted in the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (also known as the Hague Tribunal). Diplomacy;Permanent Court of International Justice Permanent Court of International Justice League of Nations;Permanent Court of International Justice [kw]Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established (Dec. 13, 1920) [kw]Court of International Justice Is Established, Permanent (Dec. 13, 1920) [kw]International Justice Is Established, Permanent Court of (Dec. 13, 1920) [kw]Justice Is Established, Permanent Court of International (Dec. 13, 1920) Diplomacy;Permanent Court of International Justice Permanent Court of International Justice League of Nations;Permanent Court of International Justice [g]Netherlands;Dec. 13, 1920: Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established[05210] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 13, 1920: Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established[05210] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 13, 1920: Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established[05210] Descamps, Édouard Eugène François Drummond, James Eric Loder, Bernard Cornelis Johannes

However, this system was less a court than a list of arbitrators from which disputing states could each choose two individuals, only one of which could be a national of their state, to sit on an arbitral panel. The four selected arbitrators would then select a fifth umpire to make up an arbitral panel of five, which would hear the dispute. This system’s ability to function depended on the development of an elaborate set of bilateral agreements among the signatory states, and only fourteen disputes were resolved under this system during its 1902-1914 existence. Nonetheless, the practice of arbitration between governments expanded, and a regional effort to go beyond arbitration to judicial settlement by a permanent court was attempted by five Central American governments in 1907, when the Central American Court of Justice was established. This court, however, also proved to be a temporary and largely unsuccessful experiment.

The events of World War I ushered in a more determined effort by governments to peacefully resolve disputes. This desire was especially evident in the negotiation of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919. Article 14 of the League Covenant contained a provision for the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), which would be “competent to hear any dispute of an international character which the parties thereto submit to it.” Article 14 also provided that such a court could offer advisory opinions to the League Council or Assembly on questions submitted to it by those bodies. Although the proposed PCIJ was given its own legal statute and member states of the League of Nations were not required to submit themselves to its jurisdiction, the PCIJ was still a by-product of the League’s deliberations. The Advisory Council of Jurists, headed by Édouard Eugène François Descamps of Belgium, met in June of 1920 to draft the PCIJ’s constitution. This document was submitted to the chief political bodies of the League and the League Council, which deliberated on the proposal and made amendments. The chief deliberations were undertaken by a subcommittee of the Assembly’s Third Committee, and the revised statute was unanimously approved by the League Assembly on December 13, 1920. However, the assembly believed that its vote was insufficient to establish the PCIJ, and so it directed the League Council to submit the statute to individual League members for ratification. Members began signing the statue on December 16, 1920, and by September of 1921, the majority of League members had ratified the protocol.

The League’s secretary-general, James Eric Drummond, compiled a list of eighty-nine prospective judges from nominations by governments. Eleven PCIJ judges and three deputy judges were elected through a complicated process that occurred both independently and concurrently in the League Council and the League Assembly starting in September of 1921. Once the League had elected the judges, the newly formed PCIJ drew up rules of procedure at its first preliminary session, which was held on January 30, 1922, at its headquarters in the Peace Palace at The Hague in the Netherlands. Judge Bernard Cornelis Johannes Loder of the Netherlands presided over the PCIJ’s first session on February 15, 1922.

The court could hear cases brought to it by parties to the Statute, or on a voluntary basis by states not party to the PCIJ Statute. Many countries observed the practice in their treaty making to confer jurisdiction on the PCIJ as the legal body designated to hear disputes arising out of bilateral and multilateral treaties. Although there were many points of contact between the PCIJ and the League of Nations, the court was an independent body, and members of the League were not automatically members of the PCIJ Statute.


The PCIJ proved to be a useful first modern experiment at developing a permanent international court. It had a formal registry that remained in contact with governments and League bodies. It heard twenty-nine contentious cases from 1922 to 1939, when World War II forced it to move its headquarters from The Hague to Geneva, Switzerland, and for all intents and purposes it ceased to function as an active body during the war years. The PCIJ also delivered twenty-seven advisory opinions concerning matters referred to it by the League of Nations. The cases heard often involved ongoing disputes rooted in the events of World War I, including the status of disputed territories under peace agreements, arguments over interpretation and application of postwar settlements, rights of minority populations, and disputes concerning sovereignty over territories.

In its jurisprudence, the PCIJ applied and sometimes clarified customary law and general principles of law, while cleaving closely to conventional obligations incurred by states through treaties. Although the court lacked compulsory jurisdiction, the statute’s Optional Clause allowed member states to accept compulsory jurisdiction for certain kinds of legal disputes with or without reservations, and many governments chose to temporarily bind themselves under the Optional Clause. Governments also availed themselves of the court as a means by which they could settle disputes in a legal setting. In addition to serving as a means for dispute settlement, the PCIJ was regarded by both legal scholars and governments as an important source of clarification on certain aspects of international law, and in some cases, the court’s judgments helped to promote the development of international law. After the outbreak of World War II, the court continued as a largely moribund entity until it was replaced by the United Nations International Court of Justice International Court of Justice (ICJ). The PCIJ met for the last time in October of 1945, and on January 31, 1946, all of the PCIJ judges resigned. In February of 1946, the U.N. General Assembly elected the first ICJ judges. In April of 1946 the PCIJ formally disbanded, and the ICJ met for the first time. Although the ICJ was an integral organ of the United Nations and did not have the PCIJ’s independent status, its statute was nonetheless largely based on the precedent set by the PCIJ, which had developed a solid and workable system. The PCIJ continued to live on in the work of its successor. Diplomacy;Permanent Court of International Justice Permanent Court of International Justice League of Nations;Permanent Court of International Justice

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, Manley O. The Permanent Court of International Justice 1920-1942: A Treatise. New York: Macmillan, 1943. A classic history and legal study of the PCIJ.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. World Court Reports: A Collection of the Judgments, Orders, and Opinions of the Permanent Court of International Justice. Reprint. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2000. A complete collection of PCIJ decisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Glahn, Gerhardt. Law Among Nations: An Introduction to Public International Law. New York: Longman, 1996. Includes a chapter on peaceful settlement of disputes, containing a useful summary on the history of arbitration, adjudication, and the role of the PCIJ.

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Categories: History