The resolution introduced by 18 core countries led by Vanuatu asked the UN’s ICJ to issue an advisory opinion on a critical set of questions on climate obligations.

World’s top court can now weigh in on climate change

More than 120 countries came together to co-sponsor the initiative led by Vanuatu, asking ICJ to particularly focus on small island developing countries which are most vulnerable to climate change

In a triumph for global climate diplomacy, a resolution calling for an International Court of Justice (ICJ) Advisory opinion on climate change was successfully adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on March 29. 

The resolution, put forward by the government of Vanuatu and co-sponsored by more than 120 countries was adopted by consensus. The campaign was launched just a few years ago by law students in the Pacific Islands. 

Vanuatu is a low-lying Pacific island nation which is extremely vulnerable to climate change.  Earlier this month,  the country was hit by two category 4 tropical cyclones in less than five days. This is an unprecedented weather event resulting in an ongoing state of emergency that is estimated to cost Vanuatu more than half of its annual gross domestic product.

Vanuatu’s prime minister Ishmael Kalsakau called the decision “a win for climate justice  of epic proportions”. The resolution introduced by 18 core countries led by Vanuatu asked the UN’s ICJ to issue an advisory  opinion on a critical set of questions on climate obligations.

“Vanuatu sees the historic resolution as the beginning of a new era in multilateral  climate cooperation, one that is more fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and  an era that places human rights and intergenerational equity at the forefront of climate decision making,” added Kalsakau.

The said court will now hold hearings and hear evidence on the obligations of states in respect to climate change, with a view to handing down an advisory opinion in 2024.  

The resolution asked the ICJ to pay particular attention to the harm inflicted on small island  nations, which are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, increased and more severe  storms, and other climate impacts. The initiative is aimed at providing clarity on existing  international law as it relates to climate change and strengthening the rule of existing  international law. 

Calling it a huge step forward in international law, the campaigners said that the court will be looking at issues of human rights and intergenerational equity which have been largely ignored by the current system. 

The court will now receive the referral and organise hearings over the next few months, with an advisory opinion issued 6-12 months following the conclusion of hearings. Although advisory opinions are not legally binding, the law they clarify is, and it is immediately applicable to States. It will provide guidance to legal systems in individual states on climate litigation and ambition. Importantly, the court will clarify the legal consequences for states that disregard these laws, and cause climate and environmental harm. 

The idea for obtaining an ICJ advisory opinion began with law students at the University of the South Pacific, who persuaded Pacific Island leaders to take the issue to the United Nations. The government of Vanuatu launched its campaign in September 2021.

The core group of countries comprises Angola, Antigua & Barbuda, Bangladesh, Costa Rica,  Germany, Liechtenstein, Federated States of Micronesia, Morocco, Mozambique, New Zealand,  Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Uganda, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

Vishal Prasad, campaigner, Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), said, “This isn’t the end of our campaign for climate justice. The court process will unfold, taking  evidence from around the world. The real work begins in applying whatever the court  advisory opinion says in domestic law, especially in countries that continue to drive the  climate crisis with their toxic emissions.”