Language Switcher

Part One: 1952-1970

Berlin Congress, 1952

The ICJ was established following the ‘International Congress of Jurists’ held in West Berlin in July 1952. The ‘Standing Committee of the Congress’, appointed by delegates to expand the work of the German ‘Investigating Committee of Free Jurists’, created the ‘International Commission of Jurists’ in 1953; a permanent body dedicated to defending human rights through the Rule of Law.

Initially based in The Hague

The early agenda of the ICJ was largely shaped by cold war concerns including the denunciation of human rights abuses in the Soviet bloc countries. A J M Bart van Dal (Netherlands) was elected as Secretary-General of the young organization whose offices were established in The Hague.

In 1953 the ICJ was legally registered as an international non-governmental organization (NGO). It comprised eleven commissioners, including senior cabinet ministers and serving judges. In 1955, the ICJ held its first international Congress in Athens, Greece, at which it adopted “the Act of Athens”. The Act insisted that the State is necessarily bound by the law and that governments must respect human rights under the Rule of Law. It also began to set out the special role of judges and lawyers in preserving the independence of their professions.

From cold war to universal interests

Athens Congress, 1955

While the ICJ’s was formed from the cold war dynamics, the jurists leading the organization were quick to understand that the universality of the Rule of Law ethos meant that their work must be directed globally, across all ideological political, legal systems. Thus, the ICJ undertook efforts to highlight grave injustices in such countries as apartheid South Africa, Franco’s Spain and Peronist Argentina. In the following decade, the membership of the Commission expanded to truly represent global interests. In 1956, Norman S. Marsh was appointed as the ICJ’s Secretary-General, directing the ICJ’s efforts towards the to develop a clear and universal definition of the Rule of Law, encompassing the world’s different legal traditions.

1958: The ICJ moves to Geneva

Dr. Jean-Flavien Lalive took up the leadership of the ICJ in 1958 and acted to bring the ICJ closer to the United Nations, both physically and politically, through the move of the organization’s headquarters from The Hague to Geneva and through more pronounced support for the development of international standards and enforcement procedures and mechanisms.

Defining the principles of the Rule of Law

At the congresses in New Delhi (1959), Lagos (1961) and Rio de Janeiro (1962), the ICJ defined principles of Rule of Law and Human Rights, in particular on procedural and substantive safeguards required for the proper administration of justice. The Declaration of Delhi, in particular, was to prove a seminal instrument in shaping the Rule of Law, with its conception of the Rule of Law as “a dynamic concept for the expansion and fulfillment of which jurists are primarily responsible and which should employed…to safeguard and advance [human] rights.”

Cementing ICJ’s reputation

Through the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, ICJ country reports, trial observations and inquiry committees drew global concern to specific abuses of human rights and the Rule of Law.

ICJ Commissioners, 1966


Under the leadership of Sean MacBride, who was appointed as Secretary-General in 1963, the ICJ assembled a global coalition of non-governmental organizations, began the drive for international human rights institution building and standard-setting. These included advocacy for the creation of a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; an international criminal court; and a world court on human rights. Sean MacBride went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, in significant part as a result of his work with the ICJ.