Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu on Wednesday won a historic vote at the United Nations that calls on the world’s highest court to establish for the first time the obligations countries have to address the climate crisis — and the consequences if they don’t.
Vanuatu has long faced the disproportionate impacts of rising seas and intensifying storms. And in 2021, it launched its call for the UN International Court of Justice to provide an “advisory opinion” on the legal responsibility of governments to fight the climate crisis, arguing that climate change has become a human rights issue for Pacific Islanders.
Although the advisory opinion will be non-binding, it will carry significant weight and authority and could inform climate negotiations as well as future climate lawsuits around the world. It could also strengthen the position of climate-vulnerable countries in international negotiations.
This year has already been rough for Vanuatu: It is currently under a six-month state of emergency after a rare pair of Category 4 cyclones pummeled the country within 48 hours during the first week of March. The islands’ residents are still picking their way through the storms’ rubble.
Wednesday’s resolution for an advisory opinion passed by majority, backed by more than 130 countries. Two of the world’s largest climate polluters, the US and China, did not express support, but did not object meaning the measure passed by consensus.
This is the first time the highest international court is called on to address the climate crisis. The landmark decision is “essential,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said in his remarks to the assembly. “Climate justice is both a moral imperative and a prerequisite for effective global climate action.”
Advisory opinions have “tremendous importance and can have a long-standing impact on the international legal order,” Guterres said.
“Today we have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” said Ishmael Kalsakau, prime minister of Vanuatu, soon after the resolution was adopted. “The very fact that a small Pacific island nation like Vanuatu was able to successfully spearhead such a transformative outcome speaks to the incredible support from all corners of the globe.”
Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s minister of climate change adaptation, told CNN that he hopes the opinion would be “greatly persuasive in terms of increasing domestic action and identifying what gaps in international law and domestic law need to be filled.”
“It is quite historic,” he added.
From classroom to the highest court
The push to seek an advisory opinion from the world’s highest court began in an environmental law class in Fiji in 2019.
Cynthia Houniuhi, president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, said she and her peers had been looking for ways to address the climate crisis head-on through various international legal pathways, until they decided on the International Court of Justice.
“To be honest, at first, I was very hesitant when this idea was discussed,” Houniuhi said. “My mind keeps telling me to back off. I mean, let’s be real here, it was too ambitious to say the least. Like, how can a small group of students from the Pacific Region convince the majority of the UN members to support this unique initiative?”