The United Nations General Assembly’s consensus adoption on March 29, 2023, of a resolution seeking an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on climate change is a milestone in defining the human rights obligations of governments, Human Rights Watch said today.
The resolution was initiated by Vanuatu, a South Pacific island state whose very existence is at risk from climate change. Nearly 20 countries around the world, most of them small, actively championed the resolution in a global demonstration underlining the urgency of the climate crisis.
“The General Assembly resolution advances the goal of setting out concrete climate change obligations of all governments,” said Richard Pearshouse, Environment and Human Rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The resolution should demonstrate to the ICJ that UN member countries are eager for clear, definitive, and well-reasoned answers to crucial questions of state responsibility.”
The resolution asks the ICJ to clarify states’ obligations regarding climate change, including their human rights obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution also asks the court for guidance on questions of accountability for “states that have caused significant harm to the climate,” including with respect to small island states, and to peoples and individuals adversely affected by climate change.
In 2021, Vanuatu announced its intention to seek an ICJ advisory opinion. Since then, Vanuatu built a core group of 18 countries to join its bid, including Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany, Liechtenstein, Federated States of Micronesia, Morocco, Mozambique, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Uganda, and Vietnam. By the time of adoption, the cross-regional core group secured more than 130 states as cosponsors of the resolution.
The resolution is a powerful demonstration of effective multilateral diplomacy led by a state from the Global South on behalf of people at risk, Human Rights Watch said. The global effort to adopt the resolution provides a model for protecting human rights on climate change issues in UN and other international forums.
More than 1,700 civil society groups across 130 countries endorsed the resolution. Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change and others in the youth climate movement had proposed the campaign in 2019 and urged governments around the world to take it on.
The ICJ accepts requests for advisory opinions on questions of international law from certain UN bodies, including the General Assembly. The General Assembly submits its request to the ICJ through a formal resolution. Though the ICJ’s advisory opinions are nonbinding, they can carry great moral and legal authority and can ultimately become part of customary international law, which is legally binding on states. Supporters of the initiative hope that the ICJ’s advisory opinion will direct countries to strengthen their domestic climate policies by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and catalyze more ambitious cooperation on climate change among states to protect the rights of at-risk populations in the countries most affected by the climate crisis.
In early March, Vanuatu experienced two back-to-back Category 4 cyclones that caused widespread damage and flooding – extreme weather events that climate change is expected to intensify. Such environmental and social impacts will increasingly devastate the lives, health, and livelihoods of people around the globe. Unless governments act boldly – and quickly – to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the crisis will become unmanageable, Human Rights Watch said.
People on the front lines of the climate crisis often live in impoverished and marginalized communities with limited opportunity to meaningfully participate in decision making and public debate on environmental issues. They have little access to independent courts to achieve accountability and redress. Activists and ordinary citizens defending their rights to land and the environment have faced intimidation, legal harassment, and deadly violence.
“The overwhelming support for Vanuatu’s resolution is a major step toward gaining clarity on the legal obligations of states most responsible for climate change,” Pearshouse said. “It’s also important to focus – through the lens of human rights – on the obligations to protect those communities suffering most acutely.”