THE HAGUE — They enjoy diplomatic perks, earn six-figure salaries and pay no taxes. As they enter and exit the courtrooms of The Hague in their adorned judicial robes, all rise in a required gesture of respect.
So it may seem incongruous that the international judges — sitting on two of the most important global courts — are entangled in awkward legal questions over how much money they make and whether they deserve it.
At the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, responsible for trying individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, a number of judges have filed a lawsuit against their court for more pay.
The judges say the court has not granted them salary increases paid to other senior court officials. They want a pay raise of 26 percent plus retroactive compensation, pension increases and damages that could run into the millions.
A few miles away at the International Court of Justice, the highest United Nations judicial authority to settle disputes between nations, the issue for the 15 judges is not more pay, but less.
Bowing to criticism, the court, which sits in the majestic Peace Palace, has agreed to crack down on moonlighting by judges as arbitrators in cases unrelated to their full-time jobs. Such work can more than double a judge’s annual earnings, currently $230,000, free of tax.
The pay issues have become the talk of The Hague’s legal community, and an embarrassment among advocates of the international justice system that is part of the Dutch city’s history.
Some worry that the squabble at the International Criminal Court demeans an institution responsible for prosecuting atrocities. The court is already struggling with attacks on its reputation, most bluntly by the Trump administration.
Even supporters of the court are wondering about the justification for a pay raise, given that its 18 judges, elected for nine years, are far from fully occupied and short of trial-ready cases; the court’s chief prosecutor and victims fund have budget problems; and the governments that donate the judges’ salaries are resisting entreaties for more money.
“The prosecutor needs funds for more investigators, the trust fund asked more help to handle reparations for victims,” said William Pace, leader of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a global network of groups that support the court. “And the president of the court is suing his own court, that’s how crazy this is.”
Mr. Pace called the plaintiffs “reckless.”
The court is also entangled in lawsuits by aggrieved current and former employees whose jobs were eliminated or repurposed in a major staff cutback a few years ago. External auditors had found that 120 jobs, among a staff of 900, should be abolished or changed.
While some people took generous severance packages or received new assignments, and 10 people were dismissed, Herman von Hebel, the court’s administrator at the time, said, “Many more were disgruntled and sued.”
Mr. Von Hebel, whose tenure ended in April, said, “If I could collect the knives put in my back over those reforms, I could open a restaurant.”
The court has already paid former employees close to $1 million in damages, lawyers said, with more cases pending.
The labor litigation has exasperated some diplomats.
“The court is in danger of spending more money on internal litigation, including litigation on salaries, than on victims,” said Britain’s Andrew Murdoch, in a sharp address to the annual meeting of the International Criminal Court’s 123 member states last month.“This will do nothing to enhance the reputation of the court outside its walls.”
Britain is one of the highest contributors to the court’s annual budget of roughly $172 million.
Twelve of the court’s judges did not join the pay lawsuit, suggesting some internal dissension. The lawsuit was filed at a Geneva tribunal of the International Labour Organization in April, without much publicity. The tribunal does not comment until a decision is made.
The lead plaintiff is the newly elected court president, Chile Eboe-Osuji of Nigeria, who declined to comment on what he described as pending litigation.
“I’m aware some countries are unhappy, but I will discuss it with them directly,” he said.
International Criminal Court judges earn close to $200,000 annually, tax-free, a sum well above the earnings of many of their European colleagues, who pay income taxes.
But the plaintiffs compare themselves with their peers at The Hague’s other international courts and tribunals, who follow United Nations standards and, like the judges at the International Court of Justice, earn at least $230,000 a year.
At the International Court of Justice, moonlighting by judges has been prohibited since the court began its work in 1946, but the restriction was never enforced.
Complaints over this outside work, forbidden in many national justice systems, were raised as far back as 1995 by a United Nations committee, with little result.
As the practice of international arbitration has boomed, more of the court’s 15 full-time judges took on this extra work, settling disputes in private contracts.
“It has become a tradition,” said Thomas Buergenthal, an American judge who retired in 2010 after a decade on the court.
“I’ve taken a few cases, but I had a rule to take not more than one case at a time,” he said. “I know of judges who abused, and took on too many contracts.”
He said the judges did not really need the money, given their tax-free salaries and other benefits and the relatively low cost of living in The Hague.
Last year, a study by a Canadian research group, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said 20 judges had served in at least 90 cases during their tenure at the court. Experts said this was just the tip of the iceberg, because in many cases arbitration contracts and fees are kept confidential.
Philippe Sands, an arbitrator and author who is also a law professor at London University, has been among the few outspoken critics of moonlighting, saying judges should surrender their fees to the court.
“Arbitration has become a hugely profitable business for law firms and counsel, like me,” he said. Fees can run to several hundred thousand dollars or more per case, he said.
“Moonlighting by sitting judges undermines the perceived integrity and independence of any judge or court,” he said.
The new president of the court, Abdulqawi A. Yusuf from Somalia, who was elected in February, announced an end to most outside moneymaking at a session of the United Nations General Assembly in October.
Citing the court’s increasing workload, he said the judges had agreed to abide by the strict rules already in place, with exceptions requiring prior approval.
Experts, including Mr. Sands, welcomed the decision.
“It’s the right thing,” he said. “They’re cleaning up their act.”
Orignially published in NYT.