UN asks world's top court to outline nations' climate change remit

Resolution asks International Court of Justice to decide if governments have legal obligation to protect against climate hazards

Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau addresses UN delegates on Wednesday. Reuters
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The UN General Assembly on Wednesday passed a resolution asking the world's top court to define countries' legal obligations related to combating climate change.

The move, spearheaded by the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu that has been affected by storms and rising sea levels, could push nations into taking stronger measures.

Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau called the resolution “a win for climate justice of epic proportions”.

It "will have a powerful and positive impact on how we address climate change and protect present and future generations", he said.

Inspired by Pacific island law students, the resolution calls on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, the Netherlands, to lay out nations' obligations for protecting the climate.

"Together, you are making history," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly.

The resolution is non-binding but Mr Guterres said an ICJ opinion "would assist the General Assembly, the UN and member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs".

More crucially, the measure also asks the ICJ to lay out legal consequences for failing to take action.

Carefully crafted to avoid blaming nations that have contributed the most to global warming, the resolution was co-sponsored by more than 120 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Morocco and New Zealand.

But neither of the world's two largest polluters, the US and China, endorsed it.

US diplomat Nicholas Hill said Washington disagreed that the initiative was the best approach for achieving "shared goals" on climate and reaffirmed the US position that "diplomatic efforts are the best means by which to address the climate crisis".

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The idea of seeking an advisory legal opinion from ICJ came from a group of law students from island nations four years ago.

One of the students, Cynthia Houniuhi, president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, told The National: “It is time we hear what the highest court in the world has to say about an issue that poses an existential threat not only to us in the Pacific region but to those around the world as well.”

She said they first learnt about the “nexus between climate change and human rights” in their international environment law class.

With a population of only 300,000 people, rising sea levels threaten Vanuatu's existence. It declared a state of emergency this month after it was struck by a 6.5-magnitude earthquake followed by two category-four cyclones within a week.

Ms Houniuhi and her classmates brainstormed ways to seek action through various legal mechanisms.

“We were convinced that the International Court of Justice was the most appealing option after our assessment of the global impact such authority can potentially have to the efforts to combat the climate crisis,” she said.

They contacted Jorge Vinuales, professor of law and environmental policy at the University of Cambridge in the UK, who helped draft the legal question to go to the ICJ.

He told The National that climate change was the “main challenge humanity has ever faced”.

“However difficult the road to get to the ICJ, we really need to hear from the world court on whether the conduct that, for over two centuries, has come to massively harm the conditions of human existence as we know it is lawful or not under the entirety of international law,” he said.

The students drafted a letter to Pacific Island leaders which propelled the Vanuatu government to lobby for the climate resolution at the UN.

The officials launched the campaign in September 2021.

Human Rights Watch international justice expert Richard Dicker said “people on the front lines of the climate crisis have “little access to independent courts to achieve accountability and redress. Activists and ordinary citizens defending their rights to land and the environment have faced intimidation, legal harassment, and deadly violence,” he said.

The aftermath of Cyclone Judy in Port Vila, Vanuatu, last month. AFP
Updated: March 29, 2023, 8:23 PM

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