SEMINAR: International Courts and Tribunals - An Introduction

Course content

The aim of this seminar is to introduce students to a broad range of international courts and tribunals, to enable them to engage in discussions relating to the legitimacy, authority, efficacy and impact of these institutions. It will also allow them to better understand what these institutions do and what issues are at stake, when they are mentioned in the media or in other academic and/or professional contexts.  


Beyond examining how and why these institutions were created, their scope and how they function, we will also examine member states’ perspectives on and responses towards these institutions. We will discuss selected case studies in class, in order to observe the tensions that arise when power, particularly to adjudicate, is delegated to a supranational adjudicative body. In addition, we will look briefly at how non-governmental actors (e.g. interest groups and the private sector) as well as domestic political processes influence how states comply with the rulings of international courts and tribunals.  Finally, we will discuss the major limitations or contemporary challenges facing these institutions, and how they have responded to these challenges.


The focus of this seminar is on politics rather than on the law and jurisprudence of these institutions. We will therefore focus on actors and institutions in the field of international dispute settlement, and will not be discussing the technicalities of the judgments rendered. While the compulsory readings that have been assigned have predominantly been written by political scientists, some relevant empirical legal scholarship will be included in the optional readings, to offer cross-disciplinary perspectives on the same subject matter.   


Students are expected to do the mandatory readings before class and to actively participate during discussions. The seminar will conclude with a non-graded (pass/fail) assignment. 


Throughout the course, students will be introduced to key concepts and terminology that will allow them to critically reflect on any supranational judicial institution. Parts A and E will serve as the introduction and conclusion to the course respectively, and here we will discuss issues that are of general relevance to the full spectrum of international courts.  


During Parts B, C and D, we will take turns to examine the main features of each of the selected international judicial bodies, with regard to the following:


Part A: Introduction and Key Concepts (1 session)

Part B: Major International Courts and Tribunals (3 sessions)

Part C: Regional Economic Courts in Europe and beyond (2 sessions)

Part D: Regional Human Rights Courts in Europe and beyond (1 session)

Part E: Review/Wrap-up (2 sessions)

The geopolitical and historical setting (i.e. context) in which it was established


Their main features and mandate - What issue areas does the court address and what are the governing rules/instruments? Who can bring cases to the court? How are judges selected? How has the court functioned thus far and what relationship does it have with the countries that are under its jurisdiction?


What challenges or limitations has the court faced? How do we examine its effectiveness? How have member states responded to its decisions, and do they generally comply? (If time permits, key cases and controversies during each court’s history can be discussed)

Each lesson will start with a lectures or guest lecture, and will generally be followed by a class discussion session and/or student presentations.
The primary method of assessment will be a written assignment (essay). Instructions regarding this assignment will be uploaded on the course forum. In addition, students are expected to participate in group activities and may be asked to present selected articles/reading materials. Class participation is mandatory and you are expected to read the mandatory reading materials ahead of class.

Note: Students are not required to purchase any textbooks. Readings will generally be uploaded on Absalon and URLs will be provided for op-eds/news articles that are available online. 



  •  Introduction and Key Concepts
    • Compulsory reading(s):

      • Romano, C. P. (2011): ‘A Taxonomy of International Rule of Law Institutions’ , 2(1), 241-277 (37 pages)

      • Excerpt from Alter, K., Helfer, L. Madsen, M.: How Context Shapes the Authority of International Courts (March 5, 2015). 79:1 Law & Contemporary Problems (2016); Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2015-13.  (22 pages)




  • WTO Dispute Settlement Mechanism (WTO DSM)


  • Optional reading(s):

    • The following report from ICTSD (2012): Dispute Settlement at the WTO: The Developing Country Experience; ICTSD International Trade Law Programme; International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Geneva, Switzerland, (8 pages)
    • Pelc, K.J. (2014). The Politics of Precedent in International Law: A Social Network Application. American Political Science Review, 108, pp 547-564. doi:10.1017/S0003055414000276.  (Note: This is an excellent recent example of how political scientists can improve our understanding of how countries strategically pursue their interests through international law and courts. The methodology is rather advanced, so don’t worry if you can’t completely follow it)





  • Regional Economic Courts (European Court of Justice)

    • Compulsory reading(s):

      • Extracts from Craig, P. & De Burca, G.: EU Law: Text, Cases, and Materials: Ch. 2, pp. 58-66; Ch. 7, pp.179-186, Ch. 9, pp. 256-262 (24 pages)

      • Alter, K. (1998): ‘Who Are the “Masters of the Treaty”?: European Governments and the European Court of Justice’,International Organization52, 1,Winter 1998, pp. 121–147 (27 pages)



  • Regional Economic Courts (ECOWAS & Andean Tribunal of Justice)
    • Compulsory reading(s):

      • Alter, K.J., Helfer, L.R. & McAllister, J.R. (2013): ‘A New International Human Rights Court for West Africa: The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice’, The American Journal of International Law 107:737 (42 pages).

Alter, Karen J. and Helfer, Laurence R. and Saldías, Osvaldo,‘Transplanting the European Court of Justice: The Experience of the Andean Tribunal of Justice’, American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 60(3), p.629 -665 (36 pages)



  • Regional Human Rights Courts (European Court of Human Rights)
    • Compulsory reading(s):

      • Madsen, M.R. & Christoffersen, J. (2011): The European Court of Human Rights between Law and Politics, Ch. 3: The Protracted Institutionalization of the Strasbourg Court: From Legal Diplomacy to Integrationist Jurisprudence & Post-Script: The Past, the Present and the Future of the ECtHR (19+25 pages)


    • Optional reading(s):
      • Björgvinsson, David Thór, The Role of Judges of the ECtHR as Guardians of Fundamental Rights of the Individual (May 1, 2015). iCourts Working Paper Series, No. 23 (24 pages)

      • Huneeus, A. (2011). ‘Courts Resisting Courts: Lessons from the Inter-American Court's Struggle to Enforce Human Rights’, , , p. 493 (42 pages)


    • Optional reading(s):
      • On human rights protection in Africa: Ebobrah, Solomon T., ‘Towards a Positive Application of Complementarity in the African Human Rights System: Issues of Functions and Relations’, European Journal of International Law, 2011, Vol. 22(3), pp.663-688 (26 pages)



SESSIONS 8 & 9 - Review sessions

  • Why States Create International Courts/Why States Comply with International Courts?
    • Compulsory reading(s):

      •  Helfer, L., Slaughter, A. (2005): Why States Create International Tribunals: A Response to Professors Posner and Yoo, California Law Review. (58 pages)
  • The international judiciary
    • Compulsory reading(s):

      • Posner, E.A. & Yoo, J.C. (2005):Judicial Independence in International Tribunals, California Law Review.
  • Effectiveness
    • Compulsory reading(s):

      • Helfer, L. ‘The Effectiveness of International Adjudicators’, in Cesare P. R. Romano, Karen J. Alter, and Yuval Shany: The Oxford Handbook of International Adjudication, Mapping International Adjudicative Bodies, the Issues, and Players (2014)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Individuel written assignment
Marking scale
passed/not passed
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

Passed/Not passed

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