Leiden Journal of International Law

HAGUE INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNALS: International Court of Justice

The Impact of the Nicaragua Case on the Court and Its Role: Harmful, Helpful, or In Between?



At the time the United States withdrew from participation in the Nicaragua case at the International Court of Justice, the US government expressed concern that ‘the course on which the Court may now be embarked could do enormous harm to it as an institution and to the cause of international law’. This essay examines whether or to what extent the anticipated negative effects came to pass. It concludes that dire predictions of harm to the Court were overstated. Twenty-five years later, the rate at which states accept the Court's jurisdiction has held steady. Only a few states have added jurisdictional reservations concerning military activities. The mix of cases being brought to the Court has shifted towards a more representative distribution. States are generally complying with the Court's decisions, though some compliance problems remain. The most serious negative impact has been on the willingness of the United States (still the Court's most active litigant) to participate fully in international dispute settlement.

Key words

  • compliance with judgments;
  • compromissory clauses;
  • compulsory jurisdiction;
  • International Court of Justice;
  • settlement of disputes involving use of force


* Hamilton Fish Professor of International Law and Diplomacy and Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization, Columbia University [damrosch@law.columbia.edu]. The author thanks Bernard H. Oxman and Joan Donoghue for comments on a draft of this paper.