IN its final decision of the year, the International Court of Justice in The Hague decided that it had no jurisdiction to determine whether Serbia and Montenegro had a valid legal claim against NATO countries that participated in the intervention in Kosovo in 1999. While few people outside of Belgrade probably paid much attention, it the decision was symbolically very important: it demonstrated just how incapable the court is of resolving disputes, and what little hope the new International Criminal Court has to do much better.
First, there is no doubt that, in strictly legal terms, NATO's intervention violated international standards. What was unclear was whether the court had jurisdiction to act against it. In this, the court was in an unenviable position: if it had held against the NATO states, they would surely have ignored the judgment. By holding in favor of these states, the court showed its irrelevance.
The decision was a fitting end to a dismal year for the court, which is the United Nations' judicial organ. Earlier this year, Israel rejected an advisory opinion that held that its security wall in the West Bank was illegal. The United States reacted lethargically to its third loss in a row on the question of whether it is in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations because police often fail to inform foreign citizens they have arrested of their consular rights. Along with the Serbia case, these two decisions were the court's only major actions in 2004.