Countries ask UN court to issue opinion on responsibility for climate change

Stephen Wright
Countries ask UN court to issue opinion on responsibility for climate change latoi Ishmael Kalsakau, Prime Minister of Vanuatu, addresses delegates at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, March 29, 2023.
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Should governments be sued for the consequences of human-driven climate change? That, in essence, was the question hatched by law students from Pacific island countries in 2019.

Four years later, in what could prove to be a landmark decision, the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday asked the U.N.’s judicial arm, the International Court of Justice, to give an opinion on states’ legal obligations to combat climate change.

The ICJ’s view, though nonbinding, would “carry enormous legal weight and moral authority,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau said in a speech before the ICJ resolution championed by his country was adopted. More than two thirds of countries had signed up as sponsors of the resolution.

“We believe the clarity it will bring can greatly benefit our efforts to address the climate crisis and could further bolster global and multilateral cooperation and state conduct in addressing climate change,” Kalsakau said.

Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu are among the countries most vulnerable to the extreme weather and sea-level rise that is projected to occur this century as a result of higher average global temperatures. Low-lying atoll nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati are particularly at risk.

At a conference in Fiji last year, officials from 15 low-lying Pacific island nations agreed that climate change was their “single greatest existential threat.” 

More than 130 nations sponsored the U.N. resolution with several including Indonesia, a major polluter, joining in at the last minute. The world’s two largest carbon polluters, the United States and China – rival superpowers that are vying for influence among Pacific island nations and pouring aid money to states in the vast oceanic region – were not among the sponsors. 

The resolution asks the international court to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of governments to protect the “climate system” and the environment from global warming, which is driven by human activity. 

It also wants the court to offer an opinion on what legal consequences stem from those obligations, for countries that cause significant harm to the climate and environment, particularly in relation to small island states.

An opinion from the International Court of Justice could add weight to the arguments for developed nations to take more action to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and for compensation for countries worst affected by a warmer climate. 

It could also be incorporated into national laws or influence courts when they consider lawsuits related to climate change.

“If and when given, such an opinion would assist the General Assembly, the U.N. and member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said.

The latest yearly report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released earlier this week, said greenhouse gasses released by fossil fuels and other human activity had “unequivocally caused global warming.” The average temperature between 2011-2020 was 1.1 degrees Centigrade higher than 1850-1900.

It said the increase in average surface temperature was already contributing to climate and weather extremes around the globe such as heatwaves and droughts and the intensity of rains and tropical cyclones. The internationally agreed goal of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 C is still achievable though time is running out, the report said.

Roemoni Tubivuna and his grandson Roemoni Tubivuna Jr., 10, prepare for a fishing outing at Veivatuloa village, Fiji, July 16, 2022. Leaders of 15 low-lying Pacific island nations declared climate change their “single greatest existential threat” at a mid-July summit in Fiji’s capital, Suva. Facing some of the most direct effects of climate change, they want developed nations, who contributed the most to global warming, not only to curb their emissions but to pay for the steps that islanders must take to protect their people from rising sea levels. [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Kalsakau and Guterres, in their speeches to the General Assembly on Wednesday, acknowledged the law students who provided much of the initial impetus for the effort to seek the ICJ opinion. 

“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,” Cynthia Houniuhi, one of the students and now president of the group, said in a statement.

A decade earlier, the Pacific island nation of Palau had indicated it would ask the General Assembly to seek an ICJ advisory opinion but its initiative didn’t advance.

The 27 students, from numerous Pacific island countries, were studying law at the University of South Pacific campus in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, when they developed the idea, according to Lavetanalagi Seru, regional policy coordinator at the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network based in Suva, Fiji.

They formed a civil society organization, Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, whose main goal was to convince governments to seek the advisory opinion, based around a question that would develop new international law combining climate change and legal obligations stemming from environmental treaties and basic human rights.

The effort reflected frustration that the pledges made by countries to reduce emissions that cause higher global temperatures were “utterly insufficient,” according to the group’s campaign materials.

Seru said it would likely take two to three years for the world court, based in The Hague, to issue an opinion.

“It’s not really to push the blame,” he told BenarNews, “but to strengthen the understanding of what exactly is the role of states to protect the rights of current and future generations and what is the basic minimum that countries must do in order to protect those rights.” 


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