UN Asks International Court of Justice to Weigh in on Climate Crisis for First Time, in Diplomatic Victory for Vanuatu
In a major diplomatic win for a Pacific nation extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis, the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday adopted a resolution to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to deliver a first-ever advisory opinion on climate change and human rights.
The resolution, championed by Vanuatu, will ask the ICJ to clarify for the nations of the world what they are obligated to do under international law to protect the environment and human rights from the impacts of clearing forests and burning fossil fuels.
“Today we have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau said in a video statement. “Vanuatu sees today’s historic resolution as the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate cooperation, one that is more fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and an era that places human rights and intergenerational equity at the forefront of climate decision-making.”
As an island nation, Vanuatu is already contending with the impacts of the climate crisis. Just this month, two Category 4 tropical cyclones walloped the country within five days of each other, the Vanuatu government noted in a statement shared with EcoWatch. Responding to the extreme weather event will likely cost more than half of the country’s yearly Gross Domestic Product.
Yet its government and citizens have stepped up as leaders in the push for ambitious climate action, also supporting a call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. The idea for the ICJ resolution was first proposed by Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), a group of students who first spoke in a Vanuatu law school classroom, the Climate Action Network (CAN) told EcoWatch in a statement.
“PISFCC began in March 2019 when 27 USP [University of South Pacific] Law students from 8 Pacific Island countries decided to join together to begin a campaign to persuade the leaders of the Pacific Island Forum to take the issue of climate change and human rights to the International Court of Justice,” the group explained on its website.
Vanuatu took up the call in Sep. 2021 and gained the support of 17 other core countries: Angola, Antigua & Barbuda, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany, Liechtenstein, Federated States of Micronesia, Morocco, Mozambique, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Uganda and Vietnam. More than 120 other countries also backed the resolution before it passed by consensus Wednesday, CAN said. The opinion will mark the first time the ICJ has considered the climate crisis.
“Thank you to everyone who joined us on our journey to take the world’s biggest problem from a classroom in the Pacific to the world’s highest court,” PISFCC tweeted in response to the news.
The resolution, “Request for an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States in respect of climate change,” asks the court to clarify two key questions:
- What does international law obligate nations to do to protect the climate and environment from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions?
- What would the consequences be under international law for nations that harm the climate and therefore also harm either vulnerable countries or individuals now and in the future?
While the advisory opinion would be non-binding, it could give greater teeth to international climate negotiations and boost the case of those suing nations or companies for climate damages.
“Climate lawsuits are booming in Europe at the moment, and an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice could trigger even more cases, and should also carry weight and help national and European courts’ reasoning when deciding on climate change cases,” CAN Europe climate governance and human rights policy expert Romain Didi said in a statement shared with EcoWatch.
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