The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution by consensus seeking an advisory opinion on climate change and human rights from the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
This is considered a milestone moment in a campaign launched over two years ago by the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), in a law school classroom in Vanuatu.
It was taken forward as a diplomatic endeavour by the Government of Vanuatu who worked alongside 18 nations on preparing the first draft and ultimately won the backing of over 120 countries before it was tabled in the UN on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.
An advisory opinion from the ICJ will provide clarity to States on their obligations under international law to protect citizens, now and in the future, from the harms of climate impacts and their responsibility in upholding fundamental human rights.
While non-binding in nature, it will add weight to efforts to hold governments accountable on climate promises and in climate negotiations in multilateral fora. It can be cited as an important precedent in climate litigation.
Wednesday’s win is seen as a significant diplomatic moment for Vanuatu and Pacific Island nations who have long championed the need for a Loss and Damage fund – which came to fruition at COP27 – and more recently backed a six-nation Pacific region call for a global phaseout of fossil fuels and a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The resolution will now reach the International Court of Justice to deliver an advisory opinion, which will be a first for the Court on the issue of climate change.
“This is not a silver bullet, but it can make an important contribution to climate action. The world is at a crossroads and we as the international community have the obligation to take greater action. Together we can send a loud and clear message into the future that on this very day the people of the United Nations acting through their governments decided to leave behind their differences and act together to tackle the challenge of climate change,” said Ishmael Kalsakau, Prime Minister of Vanuatu, as he proposed the draft resolution at the UN on Wednesday.
The development has attracted reactions from the civil society.
Tasneem Essop, Executive Director, Climate Action Network International, said: Today’s adoption in the UN of the resolution to seek an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice by consensus by countries is a truly historic moment in our quest for stronger accountability and actions from governments in addressing climate change. This moment has been long in the making. What started as a campaign by Pacific Island students in a law school classroom, and then taken forward by the government of Vanuatu, is now set to go to the world’s highest court.
“This is 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, as was also demonstrated by the agreement on the Loss and Damage Fund. We look forward to supporting the efforts to get clarity and seek justice through the ICJ on the obligations of States towards their citizens in the protection from climate change, now and in the future.”
Lavetanalagi Seru, Regional Policy Coordinator, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network: “Today’s outcome is a win for people and communities across the world that are at the frontlines of the climate crisis. The Pacific has again exemplified that despite the threats of this existential crisis, we are resolute in our efforts to effectively and urgently ratchet up climate ambition, seeking avenues to protect the rights of those most vulnerable, including future generations, and uphold the principles of intergenerational equity.
“The work has only just begun, and the road to The Hague requires everyone to push their governments to make submissions that highlight the clear linkages between the climate crisis and human rights when called on by the Court.”
Nikki Reisch, Director of CIEL’s Climate and Energy Programme: “The milestone reached today affirms the power of community-driven, people-centered campaigns for climate justice and accountability. This resolution marks a momentous step toward clarifying what existing law requires states to do to curb climate change and protect human rights. The International Court of Justice can translate the clear scientific evidence that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis into clear legal imperatives to phase them out now and implement proven, available solutions. It also can – and indeed must – hold states accountable for the mounting suffering caused by their failure to act.”
Sanjay Vashist, Director, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA): “Today’s UNGA resolution is an important landmark in the campaign for the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on climate change and human rights led by the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change and the civil society of Pacific nations. An advisory opinion from the world’s highest court will cement consensus on the scientific evidence of climate change, the impetus for more ambitious action under the Paris Agreement and a roadmap for international cooperation and assistance to combat the impacts of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable nations.”
Romain Didi, Climate Governance and Human Rights Policy Expert, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe: “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.”.