UN agrees on role for Int’l Court of Justice in climate change

Pacific island state Vanuatu – one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change – has led the UN initiative to deliver climate justice with a legal basis.

Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau, Prime Minister of Vanuatu addresses to delegates during a general assembly to vote on whether to ask top global court to issue opinion on climate responsibility at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, U.S., March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Prime minister of Vanuatu, Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau, addresses delegates during a general assembly vote on whether to ask the International Court of Justice to issue a legal opinion on climate responsibility, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, US, on March 29, 2023 [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution proposed by the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu to seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on what legal obligations nations are under to protect climate systems and people affected by climate change.

Co-sponsored by 132 countries at the UN, the resolution was adopted on Wednesday by a consensus. The UN is now empowered to seek the ICJ’s opinion on what countries’ legal obligations are to protect current and future generations from climate change.

It will also seek the ICJ’s opinion regarding the legal consequences for states that, “by their acts and omissions”, cause such harm to the climate that it affects others, particularly small island nations and their citizens who are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climatic change.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he hoped the court’s opinion, when issued, would encourage nations “to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs”, the Associated Press reported.

Leading the initiative was Vanuatu – an archipelago of roughly 80 islands spread across 1,300 km (807 miles) – which was hit by two Category 4 cyclones within three days earlier this month.

“For us, [this was] an unprecedented weather event, consistent with what science tells us is a result of climate change,” Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change Adaptation Ralph Regenvanu said last week at a press conference ahead of the UN vote.

This picture taken on November 22, 2022 shows Vanuatu Climate Change Minister Ralph Regenvanu speaks to media in Port Vila. - Vanuatu is drawing up plans to relocate "dozens" of villages with in the next two years, as they come under threat from rising seas, the Pacific nation's climate chief told AFP on December 1. (Photo by Hilaire Bule / AFP)
Vanuatu Climate Change Minister Ralph Regenvanu speaks to media in Port Vila, Vanuatu, in November 2022 [File: Hilaire Bule/AFP]

“We estimate the cost of this disaster will exceed half our annual GDP [gross domestic product],” he said. “We are well and truly in the midst of a continuing climate emergency.”

Addressing the possible outcomes if the resolution was adopted and the ICJ gives an advisory opinion, Regenvanu spoke of such concepts as a “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty” or adding a crime of “ecocide” to international law.

Vanuatu’s campaign to involve the ICJ in climate justice follows the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which delivered a dire warning that “human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe”.

The global surface temperature has increased by 1.1°C in the past century and is projected to continue increasing. The IPCC report details how, if the trend continues, the global surface temperature will “likely” exceed 1.5°C in this century and “make it harder to limit warming below 2°C”.

With increased warming comes rising sea levels, more severe and frequent extreme weather events – such as heatwaves, droughts, rainstorms and flooding – and continued loss of biodiversity, all of which disproportionately affect the poor and more vulnerable people and nations.

‘Who will pay?’

Vanuatu, which has net-zero carbon emissions, is consistently ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. More than a quarter of its population of more than 300,000 is at risk from rising sea levels.

Vanuatu has also pushed for more far-reaching policies within international climate negotiations for more than 30 years, first proposing to the UN a fund for “loss and damage” due to climate change in 1991.

This year, negotiators hailed a historic victory when a loss and damage fund was finally approved at the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The fund aims to create a mechanism to assist low-lying, developing and otherwise vulnerable nations that disproportionately bear the effects of climate change.

A transnational committee charged with figuring out the details of this programme has already been selected and held its first meeting on Monday in Luxor, Egypt. Over the next year, delegates will be sorting out the difficult questions of how much money will be in the fund and who will pay.

“The fund is an essential part of building back trust after 30 years of failed acknowledgement of the need for finance specifically allocated to address loss and damage resulting from unmitigated emissions and inadequate adaptation support,” Vanuatu’s lead climate negotiator Christopher Bartlett said.

Climate activist Nakeeyat Dramani Sam holds up a placard during the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt
Nakeeyat Dramani Sam holds a placard demanding payment of funds due to the effect of climate change at the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022 [File: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters]

While a loss and damage fund would work retroactively, attempting to compensate for what has already been lost due to climate change, the request for an advisory opinion from the ICJ is directed at shaping national policies in the future as well as opening up new avenues within international law.

The campaign to include the ICJ in delivering climate justice first began as a project at the University of the South Pacific law school in Vanuatu in 2019.

Cynthia Houniuhi, a law student at the time, remembered working with two dozen other classmates for a course about climate change and human rights.

The idea to ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion, she said during last week’s press conference with Vanuatu’s climate minister, stood out because “it was the most ambitious idea on our list”.

They were also inspired, she noted, by a similar initiative that had been undertaken by the nearby island nation of Palau.

In 2011, Palau announced plans to ask the ICJ for an opinion on the responsibilities nations had regarding climate change but the UN never voted on the resolution.

The government of Vanuatu, however, endorsed the students’ proposal, Houniuhi said, and then advanced the idea to a regional level.

“From there it was history in the making,” she added.

Source: Al Jazeera