The countries of the United Nations led by the island state of Vanuatu adopted by consensus what they called a historic resolution last Wednesday calling for the UN’s highest court to strengthen countries’ obligations to curb warming and protect communities from climate disaster.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau called the resolution “a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” The Associated Press reports. He reeled off a string of recent disasters including back-to-back Category 4 cyclones in his own country and record-breaking Cyclone Freddy that refused to leave southeastern Africa in recent weeks. “Catastrophic and compound effects like this are growing in number,” he said.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he hoped the opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), when issued, would encourage nations “to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs.”
Saudi Arabia and Iraq sought to soften the resolution, which was co-sponsored by some 132 countries, saying it would increase the work load of the international court.
The resolution marked “a rare agreement in the General Assembly that could reverberate worldwide if the International Court of Justice, in the Hague, issues an opinion that pushes countries to take greater action to curb their planet-warming emissions. The court is expected to make a ruling within two years,” E&E News writes.
“The resolution passed without opposition in the General Assembly,” E&E adds. “Yet the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases—the United States and China—were not among the nations that supported it.”
A senior Biden administration official told E&E in an email that addressing climate change “is of the highest priority” for the U.S. “However, as we have said repeatedly, we believe that diplomacy—not an international judicial process—is the most effective path forward for advancing global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.”
Like many Pacific Island nations, Vanuatu is at risk of rising seas engulfing swaths of the islands, AP says. Scientists say both extreme weather and sea levels have worsened because of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The resolution asks the court to pay particular attention to the harm endured by small island states.
Youth groups bolstered the effort, citing the need to protect the planet for current and future generations.
“I don’t want to show a picture to my child one day of my island. I want my child to be able to experience the same environment and the same culture that I grew up in,” said Cynthia Houniuhi of the Solomon Islands, president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, which worked to get the resolution to the General Assembly. “The environment that sustains us is disintegrating before our eyes.”
The group’s Solomon Yeo said “young people across the world will recall the day when we were able to get the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, to bring its voice to the climate justice fight.”
While the ICJ opinion would not be binding, it would encourage states “to actually go back and look at what they haven’t been doing and what they need to do” to address the climate emergency, said Nilufer Oral, director at the Center for International Law at the University of Singapore.
The court has other power it can bring to bear, added Christopher Bartlett, climate diplomacy manager for the government of Vanuatu. The court can reference other international legal instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which have the force of law for the countries that have ratified them.
“The International Court of Justice is the only legal authority that has a mandate to look at all of international law,” Bartlett explained. “While the advisory opinion itself is not binding, the laws upon which the advisory opinion will be speaking absolutely are legally binding and immediately applicable to states.”
He said some of the questions the ICJ will ask are: What harm to the climate has been done? Should states be forced to take certain actions? And is financial support a legal consequence of causing harm?
The resolution now goes to the court.
Countries agreed to aim to limit warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) with an upper limit of 2°C (3.6°F) under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, AP recalls. The agreement asks countries to submit their plans to curb greenhouse gases to the United Nations and regularly revise and update those plans.
Clarifying those obligations for states, as well as other promises to protect biodiversity and strengthen domestic policies, are the main aims of the advisory opinion, said Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s climate change minister.
“We are also clear eyed that existing international frameworks have significant gaps,” he said, adding that the opinion could push for stronger legal measures like negotiating a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty or criminalizing “climate destroying activities.”
Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network-International, called the resolution “a huge diplomatic success by Vanuatu and Pacific Island nations and another powerful example of how civil society and governments can work together to achieve success.”
“Climate lawsuits are booming in Europe at the moment,” added Romain Didi, climate governance and human rights policy expert at CAN-Europe. “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”.
The main body of this report was produced by The Associated Press and republished by The Canadian Press on March 29, 2023.