UN considers role of 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.

The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to vote on a resolution proposed by the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu that would ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for its opinion on what legal obligations nations are under to protect climate systems and people affected by climate change.

The court’s opinion would be sought on what the legal consequences should be 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.

Co-sponsored by 120 countries at the UN, including Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and many European Union states, the resolution could be adopted on Wednesday by a consensus or pass with a simple majority – which would require at most 97 countries voting yes. Or, it might not be adopted at all.

But if the resolution passes as anticipated, the UN General Assembly will then ask the ICJ to clarify the legal obligations that states are under – and the consequences if they fail – to protect current and future generations from climate change.

Leading the initiative is the Pacific nation of Vanuatu – an archipelago of roughly 80 islands spread across 1,300 kilometres – 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.

“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 is 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 after the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report 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 global surface temperature will “likely” exceed 1.5°C in this century and “make it harder to limit warming below 2°C”.