Gender Parity at the International Court of Justice

With the world’s attention currently on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the number of people watching hearings in the recent South Africa v Israel Application of the Genocide Convention case and the Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences arising from the Policies and Practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is unprecedented – now is as important a time as ever for the international community to reflect on the historic and continuing overrepresentation of one gender on its bench of judges. Many viewers who tuned in to watch the recent oral hearings that addressed some of the gravest issues of international law may very well have also found themselves surprised and disappointed by the lack of gender inclusivity, both on the bench and amongst those pleading before it.

The ICJ has had only six women as permanent judges since its establishment almost 80 years ago. Four of those six women judges are serving currently on the bench of 15 judges – but this is less than one third of serving judges. From its establishment in 1945 until 1995, when Rosalyn Higgins became the first woman ICJ judge, 100% of judges were men. Further, only seven women have served as what are known as Judges ad hoc. These are judges that can be appointed by States that are party to a case before the ICJ and do not have a judge of its nationality on the Bench. This is compared to 118 men, many of whom served as a judge ad hoc in repeated cases.

In the most recent election of five judges to the ICJ on 9 November 2023, States elected two women. We very much welcome the election of these two highly qualified jurists, Hilary Charlesworth and Sarah Hull Cleveland. Yet this election retained the previous gender imbalance, as Judge Charlesworth was re-elected and Judge Hull Cleveland replaced an outgoing woman judge, Judge Joan Donoghue. A great deal more must be done by all United Nations (UN) Member States and Permanent Court of Arbitrations (PCA) National Groups – both play key roles in nominating ICJ judicial candidates during the three-year election cycles – to achieve gender inclusivity on the ICJ bench.

International law enshrines women’s rights to participate equally in public life including public service on court benches. Liberal understandings of substantive equality require both representation and participation in all courts and spaces of dispute resolution, especially at the ICJ – an institution that many people think ought to be a beacon around the world for justice. A gender inclusive judiciary is not a panacea for all problems, nor should women alone be unfairly expected to “‘solve’ the injustices and limitations of [] institutions and of global affairs more broadly”. And much more research needs to be undertaken to problematise and think beyond liberal feminist methods of ‘formal equality’ and reimagine concepts of justice. Yet within and beyond the imagined liberal international order, the benefits of inclusivity on benches are numerous. These include increased legitimacy, representation of perspectives and experiences, public confidence, access to justice, fairness, equality, and much more. For these reasons, many have been calling for a gender equal ICJ bench for decades.

A New Working Group on Gender Parity for the ICJ

Building on important work such as that by GQUAL and the Institute for African Women in Law, and research directly on the topic by Badejogbin, Baetens, CorsiDawuni, Grossman, Heathcote, Hunter, Martin and others, in September 2023 the authors of this blog along with others established the Working Group on Gender Parity for the ICJ, a network of academics and practitioners committed to addressing the ongoing over-representation of one gender. This International Women’s Day, Friday 8 March 2024, the network is meeting to plan the next steps of the project, supported by the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform (PeaceRep) and UKRI & Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF). As a network, we are committed to an open, inclusive and collaborative approach, and the network is constantly expanding and deepening, so it is never too late to get involved. Please get in touch with any one of us about participation.

Clearly, the world is watching the ICJ like never before. In the coming years, the ICJ is expected to address major cases such as the Allegations of Genocide case Ukraine brought against Russia and Application of the Genocide Convention case The Gambia brought against Myanmar, and Advisory Opinions on the Obligations of States in respect of Climate Change and the Right to Strike. All are matters of crucial importance. Seeking commitments from the international community to a gender inclusive bench are as important as ever. There are already a great many highly qualified judges around the globe who represent more diverse genders and many more who will be inspired into the profession by seeing broader representation on the ICJ bench. A gender inclusive ICJ judiciary will not happen accidentally or without concerted efforts. But there is a real opportunity now, supported by an empowering and empowered network of inspiring scholars and practitioners, to set these changes in motion.

If you’d like to learn more or get involved with the Working Group on Gender Parity for the ICJ, please get in touch.

About the co-authors:

Sareta Ashraph is a barrister specialised in international criminal and humanitarian law. She is currently a Senior Legal Consultant on projects directed towards furthering accountability efforts for crimes committed in Syria and Iraq, and a Visiting Fellow with the Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict group at the Blavatnik School of Government. Until August 2019, Sareta was based in Iraq as the Senior Analyst on UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh. In 2017, Sareta was part of the start-up team of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (Syria IIIM). From May 2012 to November 2016, she served as the Chief Legal Analyst on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. In 2011 to 2012, Sareta served as the Analyst on the Commission of Inquiry on Libya, examining allegations of violations of international law by pro-Qadhafi forces, anti-Qadhafi forces, and NATO. In 2010 and 2011, Sareta was the Legal Adviser to the ICC’s Defence Office. From 2004 to 2009, Sareta was Defence Co-Counsel before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Sareta is an associate member of Garden Court Chambers (London), and is called to the Bar of England and Wales, as well as the Bar of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Jessica Corsi is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the City Law School and a founding faculty member at City’s interdisciplinary Violence and Society Centre. At City Law School Dr. Corsi serves as the Lead for Disability and Accessibility on the Law School’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion team and is an Advisory Board member for City’s interdisciplinary Centre for Law and Criminal Justice Research.

Dr. Corsi’s work focuses on how the law can prevent and alleviate violence and foster substantive and transformative equality. Her approach spans public international, regional, domestic, and comparative law, and combines theory, data, traditional legal research methods, and interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research methods from the social sciences and the sciences.

Gina Heathcote is an expert on public international law, feminist methodologies, collective security, the law on the use of force and the study of gender, sexuality and the law. Her current research analyses the international law of the sea and maritime security from a feminist perspective.

Professor Heathcote has taught and convened modules on Public International Law, International Law on the Use of Force, Gender, Sexuality and the Law and Gender, Armed Conflict and the Law. She has supervised many doctoral students and encourages interdisciplinary, innovative proposals that challenge disciplinary and legal orthodoxies. Prior to joining Newcastle Law School she was Professor of Gender Studies and International Law at the School of Law, SOAS University of London.

Sidonia Lucia Kula is an International Human Rights Lawyer and Lecturer in Law and Gender. Her research focuses on an interdisciplinary study of international law, forced migration and gendered violence through an auto-ethnographic lens. With a background in EU law and human rights law, her interest in the language and the epistemology of legal scholarship weaves together the lived experiences of those in liminal spaces of belonging such as borders and borderlands. Through an interrogation of feminist legal scholarship, she examines how legal theory understands (il)legality and (im)mobility, and how conflict and violence affects displaced bodies through the multidimensional continuum of cross-border migration.

Gail Lythgoe teaches and researches global law and governance at the University of Edinburgh. Before joining Edinburgh Law School, Gail taught international law and IR at the Universities of Manchester and St Andrews. She has studied law at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Singapore (National University of Singapore) and was a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany.

Michelle Staggs Kelsall joined SOAS as a Lecturer in International Law in July 2018. She holds a combined Bachelors in Media & Communications and Law (with Honours) from Macquarie University (Australia), a Masters in Public International Law (with Distinction) from the LSE and a PhD from the University of Nottingham. Prior to joining SOAS, Michelle worked for several years as a Human Rights Officer for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as in leadership positions for not-for-profit centres undertaking applied research in Southeast Asia and West Africa (Sierra Leone).

Michelle is the Co-Founder of ATLAS (Acting Together: Law, Advice, Support) – a women’s legal network with over 6,000 members on all five continents, whose vision is to secure equal representation of women lawyers at all stages of their careers in the field of international law and policy across the globe.