Indian Judge Retains ICJ Seat

A public hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Former Supreme Court judge, Justice Dalveer Bhandari has been re-elected by the UN to the 15-seat bench at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. His election comes after the United Kingdom withdrew its nominee from the race, ending a stalemate with India.

Bhandari’s election was almost unanimous. He got 183 votes out of the total of 193 in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and all 15 votes in the UN Security Council (UNSC). The 70-year old judge will begin his new term in February 2018. He became an ICJ judge in 2012.

Five out of the ICJ’s 15 judges face re-election every three years. Normally, this is a non-event. But matters were complicated this time around after Lebanon’s former ambassador to the UN joined the race. This meant there were now six contenders for five positions.

While four judges were elected, Bhandari ended up competing with the UK’s nominee Christopher Greenwood. No less than 11 rounds of voting followed. Each time, Bhandari defeated Greenwood in the UNGA but lost in the UNSC. It was a deadlock since a successful candidate needs to win the vote in both bodies.

Then, just prior to the 12th round of voting, India’s permanent representative to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin met his UK counterpart Mathew Rycroft along with the presidents of the UNGA and UNSC. Soon after, the UK announced Greenwood would be withdrawing, clearing the way for Bhandari.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Bhandari for his victory and commended external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and her team of diplomats ‘for their untiring efforts’. He also thanked UN members for ‘their support and trust in India.’

The implications

Once Greenwood steps down early next year, the UK will have no judge in the ICJ, something that hasn’t happened since the court was founded in 1946. British reporting has generally described Greenwood’s withdrawal as a humiliation and indicative of Britain’s decline. However, some of it has also been churlish and graceless.

‘The Indian government was working hard, twisting arms, lobbying furiously, pulling in favours… Few anti-colonialist tropes were left unused,’ wrote the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent. ‘In contrast, British ministers made some telephone calls.’

Such pettiness aside, the UK is not likely to allow the ICJ vote to affect its relations with India. In the aftermath of its decision to leave the EU, the UK has been counting on closer trade ties with India. Rycroft struck a conciliatory note, saying that while his country was ‘naturally disappointed,’ it was also pleased that a ‘close friend like India’ had won instead.

In the run-up to Bhandari’s election some Indian commentators have also seen the vote as a loyalty test for India’s new partners like the US and Japan. If these countries went against India on the ICJ (and it’s not yet clear how they voted in the previous 11 rounds), it might be possible to conclude they’re not very good friends. But India need not entertain illusions about friendships anyway. What really matters is that it enjoys a strategic convergence with the US and Japan on specific issues.

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