What’s 76 years old, and 3.7 percent female?
Sounds like a joke, right? But it’s not funny at all, especially when it refers to a global judicial body.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the main judicial arm of the United Nations, has only had four female judges in its history. The other 105 judges have all been men. Currently, three of the 15 judges – who all serve 9-year terms – are women, including the court’s president, Joan E. Donoghue. But a world court that is only 20 percent female displays a lack of commitment to gender equity by the UN that demands to be challenged.
The ICJ is asked to adjudicate some of the world’s weightiest issues, from use of nuclear weapons to conflicts over alleged state-sponsored terrorism. An upcoming petition may seek its view on who should be held responsible for mitigating and funding adaptation to the climate crisis. About half the people on the planet are women and girls, and inevitably some of the cases the court has dealt with have involved issues specifically affecting women. For example, it has addressed sexual violence in situations of armed conflict in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Balkans. And if the court engages on the climate crisis, that will be another area where women and girls are disproportionately impacted.
It’s well past time for the UN member states who elect judges to the ICJ to address the gender gap. Currently one of the 15 seats is vacant and the process has started to fill it. UN member states have an opportunity now, and in all future judicial elections, to demonstrate their commitment to gender equity. They can do this by supporting strong female candidates and taking into account candidates’ contribution to gender equality and feminist jurisprudence in international law. The fact that women are so severely underrepresented on the UN’s main judicial body in 2021 undermines the wider credibility of the UN, and casts a shadow over the weighty legal decisions it makes.