The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is by virtue of Article 37(1) of the Constitution the only body competent to give authoritative interpretations of ILO Conventions. Article 37(2) provides for the establishment of an in-house tribunal for the expeditious settlement of disputes relating to the interpretation of Conventions based on the understanding that not all questions of interpretation are highly controversial or complex to merit referral to the ICJ.

In its early years, the ILO had recourse to the advisory function of the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) on six occasions between 1922 and 1932. Five of the six advisory opinions concerned the interpretation of the Constitution and only one advisory opinion referred to the interpretation of an international labour Convention, namely the Night Work (Women) Convention, 1919 (No.4). To date, no use has been made of the advisory jurisdiction of the ICJ while the idea of setting up an internal tribunal for the rapid settlement of interpretation disputes has never been followed up beyond the level of preliminary studies.

In practice, ‘interpretative functions’ have been exercised by the Office and the supervisory bodies of the Organization. In the case of informal opinions, the Office views are solicited by a government or an employers’ or workers’ organization and take the form of administrative clarifications whereas in the case of the supervisory bodies, such as the Committee of Experts, Commissions of Inquiry or the Committee on Freedom of Association, interpretation is incidental to the exercise of supervisory responsibilities. Yet, the practical explanations of the Office or the incidental views of the supervisory bodies are at best working solutions to settle day-to-day difficulties of interpretation but do not constitute authoritative responses to controversies concerning the meaning and scope of the provisions of a Convention.