UN seeks court opinion on climate in win for island states

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FILE - Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu's climate change minister, attends a session at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Nov. 18, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The countries of the United Nations led by the island nation of Vanuatu adopted what they called a historic resolution Wednesday, March 29, 2023, calling for the U.N.'s highest court to strengthen countries' legal obligations to curb warming and protect communities from climate disaster. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

The countries of the United Nations led by the island state of Vanuatu adopted what they called a historic resolution Wednesday calling for the U.N.'s highest court to strengthen countries' obligations to curb warming and protect communities from climate disaster.

The resolution was adopted by consensus and Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau called it “a win for climate justice of epic proportions.” He reeled off a string of recent disasters including back-to-back Category 4 cyclones in his own country and record-breaking Cyclone Freddy that refused to leave southeastern Africa in recent weeks. “Catastrophic and compound effects like this are growing in number,” he said.

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U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he hoped the opinion, when issued, would encourage nations “to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs."

Saudi Arabia and Iraq sought to soften the resolution, which was co-sponsored by some 132 countries, saying it would increase the workload of the international court.

Like many Pacific Island nations Vanuatu is at risk of rising seas engulfing swathes of the islands. Scientists say both extreme weather and sea levels have worsened because of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The resolution asks the court to pay particular attention to the harm endured by small island states.

Youth groups bolstered the effort, citing the need to protect the planet for current and future generations.

“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 and the same culture that I grew up in,” said Cynthia Houniuhi of the Solomon Islands, who is president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, a group involved in getting the resolution to the General Assembly. “The environment that sustains us is disintegrating before our eyes.”

The group's Solomon Yeo said “young people across the world will recall the day when we were able to get the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, to bring its voice to the climate justice fight."

While the opinion from the International court of justice would not be binding, it would encourage states "to actually go back and look at what they haven’t been doing and what they need to do” to address the climate emergency, said Nilufer Oral, director at the Center for International Law at the University of Singapore.

The court has other power it can bring to bear, Christopher Bartlett, climate diplomacy manager for the government of Vanuatu, explained. The court can reference other international legal instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and those do have the force of law for the countries that have ratified them.

“The International Court of Justice is the only legal authority that has a mandate to look at all of international law. While the advisory opinion itself is not binding, the laws upon which the advisory opinion will be speaking absolutely are legally binding and immediately applicable to states," said Bartlett.

Bartlett said that some of the questions the ICJ will ask are: What harm to the climate has been done? Should states be forced to take certain actions? And is financial support a legal consequence of causing harm?

The resolution now goes to the court.

Countries have agreed to aim to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) with an upper limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) back in 2015 as part of the Paris Agreement. The agreement asks countries to submit their plans to curb greenhouse gases to the United Nations and regularly revise and update those plans.

Clarifying those obligations for states, as well as other promises to protect biodiversity and strengthen domestic policies are the main aims of the advisory opinion, said Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu's climate change minister.

“We are also clear eyed that existing international frameworks have significant gaps,” he said, adding that the opinion could push for stronger legal measures like negotiating a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty or criminalizing “climate destroying activities.”


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