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World Court Digest

I. Substantive International Law - First Part
4.3. International Organisations
4.3.1. General Questions

¤ Legality of the Use by a State
of Nuclear Weapons in Armed
Conflict (Request by WHO)
Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996,
I.C.J. Reports 1996, p. 66

[pp. 74-75] 19. In order to delineate the field of activity or the area of competence of an international organization one must refer to the relevant rules of the organization and, in the first place, to its constitution. From a formal standpoint, the constituent instruments of international organizations are multilateral treaties, to which the well-established rules of treaty interpretation apply. As the Court has said with respect to the Charter:

"On the previous occasions when the Court has had to interpret the Charter of the United Nations, it has followed the principles and rules applicable in general to the interpretation of treaties, since it has recognized that the Charter is a multilateral treaty, albeit a treaty having certain special characteristics." (Certain Expenses of the United Nations (Article 17, paragraph 2, of the Charter), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1962, p. 157.)

But the constituent instruments of international organizations are also treaties of a particular type; their object is to create new subjects of law endowed with a certain autonomy, to which the parties entrust the task of realizing common goals. Such treaties can raise specific problems of interpretation owing, inter alia, to their character which is conventional and at the same time institutional; the very nature of the organization created, the objectives which have been assigned to it by its founders, the imperatives associated with the effective performance of its functions, as well as its own practice, are all elements which may deserve special attention when the time comes to interpret these constituent treaties.
According to the customary rule of interpretation as expressed in Article 31 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the terms of a treaty must be interpreted "in their context and in the light of its object and purpose" and there shall be

"taken into account, together with the context:


(b) any subsequent practice in the application of the treaty which establishes the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation".

The Court has had occasion to apply this rule of interpretation several times (see Arbitral Award of 31 July 1989 (Guinea-Bissau v. Senegal), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1991, pp. 69-70, para. 48; Land, Island and Maritime Frontier Dispute (El Salvador/Honduras: Nicaragua intervening), Judgment, I.C.J Reports 1992, pp. 582-583, para. 373, and p. 586, para. 380; Territorial Dispute (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya/Chad) Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1994, pp. 21-22, para. 41; Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain), Jurisdiction and Admissibility, Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1995, p. 18, para. 33); it will also apply it in this case for the purpose of determining whether, according to the WHO Constitution, the question to which it has been asked to reply arises "within the scope of [the] activities'' of that Organization.

[pp. 82-83] 29. Other arguments have nevertheless been put forward in the proceedings to found the jurisdiction of the Court in the present case.
It has thus been argued that World Health Assembly resolutIon WHA46.40, having been adopted by the requisite majority, "must be presumed to have been validly adopted" (cf. Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1971, p. 22, para. 20). The Court would observe in this respect that the question whether a resolution has been duly adopted from a procedural point of view and the question whether that resolution has been adopted intra vires are two separate issues. The mere fact that a majority of States, in voting on a resolution, have complied with all the relevant rules of form cannot in itself suffice to remedy any fundamental defects, such as acting ultra vires, with which the resolution might be afflicted.
As the Court has stated, "each organ must, in the first place at least, determine its own jurisdiction" (Certain Expenses of the United Nations (Article 17, paragraph 2, of the Charter), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1962, p. 168). It was therefore certainly a matter for the World Health Assembly to decide on its competence - and, thereby, that of the WHO - to submit a request to the Court for an advisory opinion on the question under consideration, having regard to the terms of the Constitution of the Organization and those of the Agreement of 10 July 1948 bringing it into relationship with the United Nations. But likewise it is incumbent on the Court to satisfy itself that the conditions governing its own competence to give the opinion requested are met; through the reference made, respectively, by Article 96, paragraph 2, of the Charter to the "scope of [the] activities" of the Organization and by Article X, paragraph 2, of the Agreement of 10 July 1948 to its "competence", the Court also finds itself obliged in the present case, to interpret the Constitution of the WHO.
The exercise of the functions entrusted to the Court under Article 65, paragraph l, of its Statute requires it to furnish such an interpretation, independently of any operation of the specific recourse mechanism which Article 75 of the WHO Constitution reserves for cases in which a question or dispute arises between States concerning the interpretation or application of that instrument; and in doing so the Court arrives at different conclusions from those reached by the World Health Assembly when it adopted resolution WHA46.40.

[p.203 D.O.Koroma] Although the resolution containing the request is not itself a treaty, however, like the Court in its majority opinion, its interpretation can be guided by the relevant provisions of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties so as to establish that the question formulated in the resolution falls within the competence or scope of activities of the Organization, as defined in its Constitution.

[p. 219 D.O.Koroma] On the question whether an international organization is entitled to determine its own competence or jurisdiction, the Court had this to say in its Advisory Opinion in the Certain Expenses case:

"In the legal systems of States, there is often some procedure for determining the validity of even a legislative or governmental act, but no analogous procedure is to be found in the structure of the United Nations. Proposals made during the drafting of the Charter to place the ultimate authority to interpret the Charter in the International Court of Justice were not accepted; the opinion which the Court is in course of rendering is an advisory opinion. As anticipated in 1945 therefore, each organ must, in the first place at least, determine its own jurisdiction." (Certain Expenses of the United Nations (Article 17, paragraph 2, of the Charter), I.C.J. Reports 1962, p. 168; second emphasis added.)

In that same Opinion, the Court stated that

"when the Organization takes action which warrants the assertion that it was appropriate for the fulfilment of one of the stated purposes of the United Nations, the presumption is that such action is not ultra vires the Organization" (ibid.).

What this shows, in my view, is that prior to the present case and in accordance with its jurisprudence, the Court has held that international organizations are competent to determine their competence or jurisdiction. On this occasion, the Court decided to depart from this its jurisprudence, but with hardly any explanation or reason but not only did the Court choose not to follow its jurisprudence on this occasion in the past, while not denying itself the right to examine the competence of the body making the request, it rejected certain objections to its jurisdiction based on the claims that such bodies were not competent to make the request (Interpretation of Peace Treaties with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, First Phase, I.C.J. Reports 1950, pp. 72 et seq., and Reservations to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, I.C.J. Reports 1951, pp. 19-20).