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UN adopts landmark resolution on climate justice

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Pushed for years by Vanuatu and Pacific islander youth, the measure asks the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to lay out nations’ obligations for protecting Earth’s climate, and the legal consequences they face if they don’t.

“Together, you are making history,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, emphasizing that even if non-binding, an opinion from the International Court of Justice “would assist the General Assembly, the UN and member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs.”

Ultimately co-sponsored by more than 130 member states, the resolution had been widely expected to be approved.

Its adoption sends “a loud and clear message not only around the world, but far into the future,” Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau told the assembly.

The resolution asks the ICJ to clarify the “obligations of states under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system.”

Kalsakau, whose archipelago nation was ravaged by two cyclones over the course of just a few days, emphasized that the world body had “decided to leave aside differences and work together to tackle the defining challenge of our times, climate change.”

The government of Vanuatu started lobbying for the climate resolution in 2021, after a campaign initiated by a group of students from a university in Fiji in 2019.

A week ago, the UN’s panel of climate experts (IPCC) warned that global average temperatures could reach 1.5 C above the pre-industrial era by as early as 2030-2035, underlining the need for drastic action this decade.

While nations have no legal obligation under the 2015 Paris Agreement to meet emission reduction targets, backers of the new climate resolution hope other instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, could offer some pathways for enforcement.

“This resolution centers human rights and intergenerational equity when addressing climate change – two critical points that have been missing from much of the dominant discourse,” Shaina Sadai of the Union for Concerned Scientists advocacy group told AFP.

Describing the new resolution as “the most important global move since the Paris Agreement feels accurate,” Sadai said, adding that it was an “incredibly important next step” particularly for guidance for “lawsuits being brought in courts around the world.”

The adoption comes the same day that cases opened before the European Court of Human Rights against France and Switzerland over alleged failings to protect the environment, marking the first time governments are in the court’s dock for alleged climate change inaction.

Although ICJ opinions are not binding, they carry significant legal and moral weight, and are often taken into account by national courts.

‘Bigger than our fears’

Vanuatu and its supporters hope that the forthcoming ICJ opinion, expected in about two years, will encourage governments to accelerate their action, either of their own volition or because of legal recourse.

The enthusiasm however is not shared by all.

“I see scenarios where this request would be counterproductive,” Benoit Mayer, a specialist in international law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.

He warned of a possible “disaster scenario,” if the ICJ opinion is “clear and precise, but contrary to what the supporters of the request wanted.”

The UN resolution notably asks the ICJ to clarify the “legal consequences” for states which “have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment.”

It specifically asks the court to weigh obligations to “small island developing States,” which are “particularly vulnerable” to climate change, as well as obligations to future generations.

The adoption marked an emotional moment for the Pacific youth who spearheaded the initiative.

“This was an opportunity to do something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our fears, something important for our future,” said Cynthia Houniuhi, president of the group Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change.