UN votes to ask world court to rule on countries’ climate duties

'I can now say to my kids and to the kids of the world that leaders of the world are listening to their concern,' Vanuatu's Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau told Al Jazeera [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

The call for the International Court of Justice to provide a legal opinion on the climate crisis follows a campaign led by the Pacific island of Vanuatu.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a landmark resolution asking the world’s top court to define the obligations of countries to combat climate change.

Advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “have tremendous importance and can have a long-standing impact on the international legal order,” UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday as the resolution passed with a consensus vote.

“If and when given, such an opinion would assist the General Assembly, the United Nations and member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs,” Guterres added. An advisory opinion would not be binding on any jurisdiction, but could influence future negotiations.

The resolution comes after a four-year campaign led by the Republic of Vanuatu – an archipelago of roughly 80 islands spread across 1,300km (807 miles) that was hit by two Category 4 cyclones within three days earlier this month.

“I can now say to my kids and to the kids of the world that leaders of the world are listening to their concern,” Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau told Al Jazeera.

The original idea for a UNGA resolution came from law students from Vanuatu during a class project. They then suggested it to the island’s officials.

“We are just ecstatic that the world has listened to the Pacific youth and has chosen to take action” on the idea that “started in a Pacific classroom four years ago,” said Cynthia Houniuhi, the Solomon Islands-based president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change.

‘A defining moment’

Vanuatu and other vulnerable countries are already grappling with the powerful impacts of a heating planet. On the eve of the vote, Vanuatu diplomats were still trying to win support from China and the United States – or at least convince the two biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries not to raise objections.

Countries will submit input over the next year. It could take the court around 18 months to issue an advisory opinion that could clarify financial obligations countries have on climate change; help them revise and enhance national climate plans submitted to the Paris Agreement; and strengthen domestic policies and legislation.

Some campaigners wonder, though, whether countries will really abide by the ICJ’s opinions or whether they will seek to narrow down the resolution’s scope, said Al Jazeera’s James Bays.

“UN insiders will tell you that the resolution went through with all those countries agreeing with it, but privately they don’t really do [so],” Bays said, reporting from UN headquarters in New York. “No one wants to put their head above the parapet and be the country that objected to this resolution.”

The US did not support the resolution.

“We believe that diplomacy – not an international judicial process – is the most effective path forward for advancing global efforts to tackle the climate crisis,” a senior official from the administration of US President Joe Biden told Reuters. “We have expressed that directly to our partners, and made that clear at the UN.”

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 latest IPCC report details how, if the trend continues, the surface temperature will “likely” exceed 1.5°C in this century and “make it harder to limit warming below 2°C”.

The resulting advisory opinion could offer vital input to burgeoning climate-driven lawsuits worldwide. There are upwards of 2,000 cases pending around the globe.

Other international courts and tribunals are also being asked to clarify and define the law around climate obligations, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.



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