UNGA passes resolution asking ICC to rule on national climate obligations

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The UN General Assembly has passed a resolution by acclamation requesting the International Court of Justice for a legal opinion on the obligations of states to combat climate change.

The resolution was spearheaded by the Republic of Vanuatu – a small island state among the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of a heating planet particularly due to greenhouse gas emissions.

An advisory opinion from the Court, which serves as the judicial organ of the United Nations, would not be binding but could provide some clarity on the obligation of states and guide future actions in response to the devastating impacts of climate change.

A decision by acclamation in the General Assembly demonstrating the broad consensus among member states, passing a resolution that notes with profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise despite the adverse effects of climate change globally.

Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau says, “This is not a silver bullet, but it can make an important contribution to climate change. Climate action, including by catalyzing a much higher ambition under the Paris Agreement. The legal questions contained in the draft resolution represent a careful balance achieved after extensive consultations whilst safeguarding its integrity. At the heart of the question is a desire to further strengthen our collective efforts to deal with climate change, give climate justice the importance it deserves and bring the entirety of international law to bear on this unprecedented challenge. We believe that the ICJ can do this.”

The General Assembly resolution to the International Court of Justice asks key questions including what are the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system for future generations. And specifically, what the legal consequences should be if their acts and omissions cause harm to peoples, particularly in small island states, which due to their geographic circumstances and level of development are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The UN Chief Antonio Guterres calls the decision historic. “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. Advisory opinions can provide much-needed clarification on existing international legal obligations. If and when given, such 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. It could also guide the actions and conduct of States in their relations with each other, as well as towards their own citizens. This is essential.”

The world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters China and the United States were not among the over 130 co-sponsors of the text – as Guterres argued that climate justice was both a moral imperative and a prerequisite for effective global action.

“The climate crisis can only be overcome through cooperation – between peoples, cultures, nations, and generations. But festering climate injustice feeds divisions and threatens to paralyze global climate action. Excellencies, for those on the frontlines already paying the price for global heating they did nothing to cause, climate justice is both a vital recognition and a tool.”

The Vanuatu government began pushing for the resolution after a group of students in Fiji first proposed the idea some four years ago for the international legal system to weigh in on questions of climate justice.