Back to overview

Testing the Focal Point Theory of International Adjudication: An Empirical Analysis of the ICJ’s Impact on Maritime Delimitation

Applicant Yildiz Ezgi
Number 190545
Funding scheme Spark
Research institution Political Science Department Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Institution of higher education Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies - IHEID
Main discipline Political science
Start/End 01.01.2020 - 30.06.2021
Approved amount 114'802.00
Show all

All Disciplines (2)

Political science
Legal sciences

Keywords (8)

Mixed-methods approach ; Legal change ; Focal point theory ; International courts; Maritime delimitation; Continental shelf ; Interdisciplinary law and politics scholarship; Customary law

Lay Summary (French)

Notre projet met en question la supposition que les décisions des cours internationales servent à clarifier le droit pour les États en dispute ainsi que les États tiers. Nous proposons qu’une décision juridique peut donner des opportunités aux d’adopter et promouvoir des normes légales contradictoires. Nous explorons cette possibilité dans le domaine de la délimitation maritime.
Lay summary
La recherche en matière de relations internationales et droit international souvent assume que les cours internationales—comme la Cour internationale de justice (CIJ)—servent à renforcer la certitude juridique et la résolution pacifique des différends internationaux. Il est supposé que les cours remplissent ces fonctions en clarifiant les principes juridiques et en fournissant des points focaux autours desquels les États peuvent coopérer. Notre projet met en question la supposition que les interventions des cours internationales servent à clarifier le droit pour les États en dispute ainsi que les États tiers. Nous adoptons une approche interdisciplinaire et utilisons des méthodes mixtes pour examiner la mesure dans laquelle les cours fournissent des points focaux pour coopération. Nous considérons spécialement la possibilité que l’action des cours peuvent avoir des conséquences inattendues. Par exemple, une décision juridique peut faire naître des opportunités dont les États peuvent se prévaloir pour adopter et promouvoir des normes légales contradictoires. Nous élaborons une théorie qui lie l'action des cours à la pratique des États. En utilisant des techniques variées d'analyse de textes, nous testons notre théorie dans le domaine de la délimitation maritime. Notre but est de démontrer la possibilité d'entreprendre des études empiriques de la relation entre la production juridique et la pratique des États dans d’autres domaines où les règles juridiques deviennent de plus en plus importantes.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 17.12.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Behavioral Approaches in International Law Workshop Talk given at a conference “Do International Courts Provide Focal Points for Cooperation?” 22.04.2021 Online , Germany Yüksel Umut; Yildiz Ezgi;
Annual Convention of International Studies Talk given at a conference "How New Laws Shape the Preferences of the Undecided and the Silent" 06.04.2021 Online , United States of America Yildiz Ezgi; Yüksel Umut;
American Society of International Law (ASIL) International Courts and Tribunals Interest Group Work-in-Progress Workshop, Talk given at a conference “Letting External Norms in: How the Courts Behave when Reviewing Environmental Norms? 05.02.2021 Online, United States of America Yildiz Ezgi; Olliaro Alberto;
Pluricourts-iCourts Concepts and Methods Workshop Talk given at a conference Letting External Norms in: How the Courts Behave when Reviewing Environmental Norms? 24.11.2020 Online, Norway Yildiz Ezgi; Cruz Carrillo Carlos Antonio;
Toward a New Generation of International Law Databases, Computational and Empirical International Law Speaker Series (CEILSS), Talk given at a conference New Dataset on State Policies in the Field of Maritime Delimitation 20.11.2020 Online , Switzerland Yildiz Ezgi;


Title Date Place
Paths Panel 12.11.2020 Online , Switzerland


Title Year
Elected to be a member of the Expert Group for the Implementation of the EU Anti-Torture Regulation (Regulation 2019/125), EU Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), Brussels, Belgium 2021


International Relations and International Law (IR/IL) literatures often see international judicial bodies as serving to further legal certainty and peaceful resolution of disputes through their rulings. Many scholars argue that international courts not only resolve disputes, but also influence the behavior of states that are not parties to those disputes. They do so by clarifying legal principles and providing focal points for cooperation. Scholars have long suggested that focal points could help actors coordinate their expectations and behavior even in the absence of any threat of sanction or any possibility for enforcement. While we agree that the influence of international courts reaches beyond the specific cases they treat, we take issue with the assumption that their intervention necessarily increases legal certainty and reduces future conflict by constructing focal points. Our project adopts an interdisciplinary lens and a mixed-methods approach to examine the degree to which international judicial bodies can and will provide focal points. In this exploratory study, we pay particular attention to the unintended consequences of international judicial decisions. These may include creating opportunities and incentives for states to adopt incoherent rules and principles in the absence of a clear precedent. Our contribution will fill two important gaps in the literature. First, the scholarship has overlooked the possible consequences of judicial interventions that do not result in more certainty or focal points. Second, while the ways in which international law and institutions can provide focal points have been widely discussed, we know little about the conditions under which such a focal point will actually emerge. Beyond contributing to these academic debates, our findings carry policy implications for the design of international institutions and challenges facing increasingly legalized international governance structures. Our working theory is that, in many cases, focal points will not be provided either because courts generate rival rules or make complex and case-specific decisions that cloud out any simple and generalizable solution that would stand out as focal. Such decisions give states a great deal of flexibility in the rules they choose to adopt, especially if there are distributional consequences associated with the prevalence of one rule over another. States’ adoption of contending rules makes law more uncertain and increases the chances for further disputes. We focus on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the most obvious focal point provider, as it is often considered to have the final say in many areas of international law, which “gives the ICJ a unique ability to create focal precedents.” The ICJ serves as a most likely case where we can best hope to observe focal points if they are actually created by international courts as the literature suggests. We illustrate and further develop our argument by examining the impact of the ICJ rulings in a pilot study on the law of maritime delimitation. In particular, we focus on the law governing the delimitation of the continental shelf, a body of law marked by the ICJ’s involvement in critical stages of its development. We particularly consider moments in which the ICJ is brought to make pronouncements as to the customary nature of a delimitation rule as potential instances of focal point creation.To test the common assumption about courts’ role in creating focal points, we create a new, comprehensive database of state positions on continental shelf delimitation. To examine how state practice evolves in parallel to court rulings, we use various cutting-edge methods ranging from change point detection techniques to text mining and analysis through machine learning. Our analysis and findings promise to shed light on how courts’ inability or unwillingness to provide unique focal points influence state strategies and bargaining outcomes-a question so far neglected in the IR/IL literature. After completing this exploratory analysis, we hope to design a larger project where we investigate the courts’ potential to create focal points in other fields of law such as investment law, humanitarian law or international criminal law.