Written by: Kimberly White

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a landmark resolution seeking an advisory opinion on the issue of climate change and human rights from the world’s highest court. 

Led by the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, the resolution seeks an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the rights of current and future generations to be protected from the impacts of climate change, as well as to clarify the obligations of States under international law in relation to climate change. The resolution requests that the ICJ pay particular attention to the harms inflicted upon small island nations, which are among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. 

“We believe that this Resolution will help save the Paris Agreement as its preamble makes it clear that all States ‘should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights,’ We are asking for clarification from the ICJ on exactly these State obligations,” said Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change.

Adopted by consensus, the landmark resolution empowers the United Nations to ask the ICJ to render an advisory opinion clarifying States’ human rights and legal obligations to limit their climate harms. The resolution also seeks the ICJ’s guidance in regard to questions of accountability for States deemed to have caused significant harm to the climate. 

“[W]e have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” said Ishmael Kalsakau, Prime Minister of Vanuatu. 

Prime Minister Kalsakau further stated that the historic resolution is 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.”

The resolution was introduced by a core group of nations, including Vanuatu, Antigua & Barbuda, Costa Rica, Sierra Leone, Angola, Germany, Mozambique, Liechtenstein, Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Singapore, Uganda, New Zealand, Vietnam, Romania, and Portugal. 

The resolution received widespread support from States, with 132 countries co-sponsoring the initiative, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom. 

Two of the world’s leading contributors to climate change were notably absent from the list of supporting countries— the United States and China. While the two nations did not explicitly state their support, they also did not object. 

What can an advisory opinion do?

The International Court of Justice accepts requests for advisory opinions on questions of international law from select United Nations bodies like the UN General Assembly. 

While advisory opinions from the ICJ are not legally binding, they carry significant legal weight and moral authority. An advisory opinion could influence international law and aid climate lawsuits around the world. 

“Advisory opinions of the Court – the principal judicial organ of the United Nations – have tremendous importance and can have a long-standing impact on the international legal order,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Advisory opinions can provide much-needed clarification on existing international legal obligations.”

“[S]uch an opinion would assist the General Assembly, the UN, and Member States to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs,” continues Guterres. “It could also guide the actions and conduct of States in their relations with each other, as well as towards their own citizens.”

It is the hope of campaigners that this advisory opinion will spur countries to bolster their domestic climate policies and catalyze ambitious action and cooperation to protect the rights of vulnerable populations in countries most affected by the climate emergency, explains Human Rights Watch. 

“The General Assembly resolution advances the goal of setting out concrete climate change obligations of all governments,” said Richard Pearshouse, Human Rights Watch Environment and Human Rights Director. “The resolution should demonstrate to the ICJ that UN member countries are eager for clear, definitive, and well-reasoned answers to crucial questions of state responsibility.”

“The overwhelming support for Vanuatu’s resolution is a major step toward gaining clarity on the legal obligations of states most responsible for climate change,” adds Pearshouse. “It’s also important to focus – through the lens of human rights – on the obligations to protect those communities suffering most acutely.”

What happens next?

Following the adoption of the resolution by the UNGA, the UN Secretariat will now prepare copies of the resolution and share them with the International Court of Justice within two weeks, explains the Republic of Vanuatu.  

States and selected intergovernmental organizations will be invited to present written statements on the legal question posed by the UNGA. The ICJ will commence hearings to hear the evidence regarding the obligations of States in respect to climate change. 

After the hearings conclude, the ICJ will begin its deliberations with the aim of handing down an advisory opinion next year. 

Frontlines of the climate crisis

Vanuatu has been a fierce leader in the climate justice movement for decades. Like many island nations, Vanuatu is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. 

In March 2023, the Pacific Island nation was battered by two Category 4 tropical cyclones in a period of fewer than five days. The government estimates that this unprecedented weather event will cost the nation more than half of its annual GDP. 

Additionally, Vanuatu has been hit by two Category 5 cyclones in recent years which have had severe impacts on the nation’s economy and society.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam devastated the island nation, resulting in an estimated $590 million in economic damage, equivalent to 64 percent of Vanuatu’s 2015 GDP, and left 75,000 of the island’s residents homeless. The Category 5 storm also destroyed 96 percent of Vanuatu’s food crops.

During the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vanuatu was struck by Category 5 Cyclone Harold, making landfall with sustained winds up to 165 mph. The rapidly intensifying cyclone was the second most powerful storm to hit Vanuatu and caused significant damage, decimating crops, schools, and buildings. In the country’s Sanma Province alone, around 90 percent of the population lost their homes.  

Tropical cyclones are predicted to grow in strength in severity as ocean temperatures rise from climate change, according to scientists. 

Campaign for climate justice started in a classroom

Vanuatu’s campaign is the result of years of steadfast campaigning from Pacific Island youth. 

Four years ago, a group of law students from eight Pacific Island countries came together to form Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC) to prompt leaders of the Pacific Island Forum to bring the issue of climate change and human rights to the ICJ.

“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,” said Prime Minister Kalsakau.

The vote by the UN General Assembly was a point of celebration for PISFCC and the World’s Youth for Climate Justice Forum. 

“We are just ecstatic that the world has listened to the Pacific Youth and has chosen to take action. From what started in a Pacific classroom four years ago,” said Cynthia Houniuhi, Solomon Islands-based President of Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC). “As young people, the world’s failure to stop planet killing emissions is not a theoretical problem. It is our present and it is our future that is being sold out. The vote in the United Nations is a step in the right direction for climate justice.”

“We thank all countries for their support, especially those countries around the world that joined with Vanuatu as co-sponsors. We also extend deep thanks to the Government of Vanuatu and all those who have been working to make what started as a thought in a classroom to become reality,” adds Nicole Ponce, Asian Front Coordinator at Worlds Youth for Climate Justice. “While this is no silver bullet to the climate crisis it is a huge step forward in international law. We urge countries to engage with the process and to increase their climate ambitions.”

Civil society championed pursuit of ICJ opinion

The Government of Vanuatu announced their bid for an ICJ advisory opinion on the rights of current and future generations to be protected from the impacts of climate change in September 2021. 

The campaign quickly garnered a wealth of support from civil society, with more than 1,500 civil society organizations from 130 countries establishing a global alliance to support the climate justice initiative. The alliance included PISFCC, Climate Action Network International, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 350 Pacific, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, and Vanuatu Climate Action Network.

Together, the alliance called for international support for Vanuatu’s proposal. 

Climate Action Network International Executive Director Tasneem Essop called the UNGA’s resolution adoption a “historic moment” in the quest for stronger accountability and action from States addressing the climate emergency. 

“This moment has been long in the making. What started as a campaign by Pacific Island students in a law school classroom, and then taken forward by the government of Vanuatu, is now set to go to the world’s highest court,” said Essop. “This is a huge diplomatic success by Vanuatu and Pacific Island nations and another powerful example of how civil society and governments can work together to achieve success,”