NZ knight elected judge of world's top court

By Audrey Young, Helen Tunnah

New Zealand Supreme Court judge Sir Kenneth Keith has won a tough election to the International Court of Justice after a vote at the United Nations yesterday.

It was the successful end to the most important campaign for an international candidature that New Zealand has run since former Prime Minister Mike Moore became head of the World Trade Organisation in 1999.

Australia and Canada actively backed the bid.

Sir Kenneth is the first New Zealand judge to win election in the court's nearly 60 years of existence.

Based in The Hague in the Netherlands, the court is the principal judicial arm of the United Nations.

He will begin his nine-year term in February and the first case he will hear will be between Bosnia- Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro over claims of genocide.

New Zealand, Spain and the United States were competing for two vacancies on the court of 15 judges.

The other seat was filled by US candidate Thomas Buergenthal, seeking a second term.

Speaking from New York yesterday, Sir Kenneth acknowledged the effort put in by the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The support of Australia, Canada and the Pacific Islands had also been "fabulous".

He said his election was "a mark of New Zealand's great role in the world community, because it does play an important part and that has been reflected in the widespread support we have had in the past couple of years and particularly today ".

Sir Kenneth has twice been a member of New Zealand legal teams taking cases to the International Court, challenging the legality of nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1970s and in 1995.

He is a former Law Commission president and joined the Appeal Court in 1996 before being appointed to the first bench of the new Supreme Court. He will be replaced by Justice John McGrath.

Professor Matthew Palmer, dean of law at Victoria University of Wellington, where Sir Kenneth is an emeritus professor, said Sir Kenneth had contributed greatly to the development of international law.

He said Sir Kenneth saw the law not only as a force for order, but as a means to secure justice and humanity for aggrieved people and nations.

That, combined with his knowledge, would enhance the work of the International Court.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said competition to serve on such a prestigious body had been fierce and it had been "a tough campaign".

Sir Kenneth was due to step down this year from the New Zealand bench, which has a retirement age of 68, but his election yesterday suggests he is in the prime of his judicial career.

Who runs the court?

* Set up in 1946, it sits in The Hague and has 15 judges.

* The court settles disputes between countries but also offers legal opinions.

* Judges do not represent their countries. They are independent.

* Court decisions cannot be appealed. Not all UN members accept its jurisdiction.

* If a country ignores a ruling, the other party can seek Security Council help.

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