After twin cyclones leave thousands homeless, Vanuatu takes climate plea to world stage

Vanuatu, still reeling from two cyclones that struck within a week, says it hopes the United Nations General Assembly will next week adopt its push for greater priority to be given to the human rights impact of climate change.

The Pacific island nation’s Minister of Climate Change, Ralph Regenvanu, said 119 governments have co-sponsored Vanuatu’s resolution, which seeks legal clarity on the obligation of states to take climate change action, and draws attention to the vulnerability of small islands states hit by worsening storms and rising seas.

Vanuatu hopes more nations will sign-on before the general assembly debate begins on Wednesday, and it will be passed by consensus, he said according to a Reuters report.

“Right now in my country, thousands of citizens are dealing with broken homes, destroyed infrastructure and loss of food crops,” he told an online forum on Thursday evening.

The cost of the disaster will exceed half of Vanuatu’s annual GDP, he added.

More than 3,000 people are still in evacuation centres three weeks after two category-four cyclones hit Vanuatu, which has a population of 319,000 spread across 80 islands.

Homes, schools and medical centres were damaged or destroyed and several island airports remain shut.

The resolution “does not name, blame, or shame any particular nation or group of countries; rather, it asks for guidance and clarity on the application of existing international law,” he said.

The International Court of Justice would be asked to issue a legal opinion on the responsibility of states, and while this was not legally binding, it should motivate states to ensure human rights are prioritised in climate change negotiations, he added.

Vanuatu took up the challenge to seek a legal opinion from the United Nation’s top court after a group of Pacific islands university students in 2019 petitioned governments with the idea.

Cynthia Houniuhi, President of the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, said it was the most ambitious action they could think of.

“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,” she told the forum, highlighting the risk of rising sea levels to villages across the Pacific.


Photo file  Caption: Damage caused by TC Judy