Island states support Vanuatu’s quest for climate justice at the UN

Vanuatu asks the International Court of Justice to prepare a toolkit for climate litigation, but first it needs a majority in the United Nations General Assembly

Pacific and Caribbean nations have joined Vanuatu in seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on countries’ legal obligations to protect people from climate damage.

Made up of more than 80 islands spanning 1,300 kilometres, Vanuatu faces rising sea levels and increasingly powerful cyclones that periodically cripple its economy.

With the world not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, on which the survival of vulnerable nations like Vanuatu depends, the Pacific island state has decided to take the issue to the main judicial arm of the world. ‘UN.

The island of 310,000 people needs a simple majority of countries at the UN General Assembly in September to give the ICJ a mandate to act.

A successful vote “would send a clear signal to present and future generations that no stone is left unturned in this critical decade to change course,” said Odo Tevi, Vanuatu’s special envoy for climate and permanent representative. at the UN, at Climate Home News.

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Under the proposal, the ICJ would be tasked with interpreting what international human rights and environmental law means for states’ responsibility to act on the causes and consequences of climate change.

It has no enforcement powers and the exercise is not designed to obtain reparations for victims of climate disasters.

But an ICJ opinion could inform climate lawsuits around the world and – Vanuatu hopes – strengthen the position of vulnerable countries in international negotiations.

“Climate litigation is one of the tools that has been put to good use in some forums and speaks to the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and lack of ambition in the fight against climate change,” Tevi said.

The idea to pursue this legal route came from environmental law students at the University of the South Pacific campus in Vanuatu, who asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consider it.

After deliberations and delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government of Vanuatu has decided to take up the case in September 2021.

Romabeth Siri is a 25-year-old Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change activist.

A law graduate, she joined the student campaign after Cyclone Harold, the second Category 5 storm to hit the country in five years, hit her home island of Santo in April 2020. At least 27 people were reported dead.

“My family, largely made up of subsistence farmers, relies heavily on agriculture to generate income. The fact that the cyclone destroyed what took my family generations to grow and maintain made me want to find a solution to this climate crisis in a legal context,” she told Climate Home .

“If governments continue to disregard the rights and voice of their citizens by failing to protect their human rights from the climate crisis, citizens will exercise their rights by holding their government to account in court,” he said. she declared.

A family stands next to what was once their outhouse after Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila (Photo: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP/Flickr)

Tevi is responsible for garnering support for the Vanuatu initiative in New York. But it started closer to home.

The strategy, he explained, was to first engage with the Pacific community and, from there, build a coalition of vulnerable, like-minded countries. “It matters because climate change poses an existential threat to Pacific island countries, but to small states in general,” he said.

Caribbean Community (Caricom) heads of government endorsed the idea at a conference in Belize in March. Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 civil society organizations from 130 countries, lent its support to the campaign earlier this month.

Discussions are underway with capitals in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, said Tevi, who described the “hard work” of Vanuatu’s diplomatic corps to get a vote on the line. “Progress so far has been good.”

It’s a big job for a small nation. In 2012, the sinking archipelagos of Palau and the Marshall Islands tried unsuccessfully to secure a majority for a similar demand, in the face of US opposition.

“Navigating the political landscape at the UN is a minefield, so we’re vigilant about that,” Kevin Chand, legal adviser to Vanuatu’s permanent mission to the UN, told Climate Home.

Lynn A. Saleh