Vanuatu hosts high-profile event on legal action for climate justice

On September 24, Vanuatu convened experts and delegations from around the world to discuss legal action for climate justice as part of a packed week of activities surrounding the Climate Action Summit in New York.

Chaired by Minister of Foreign Affairs Ralph Regenvanu and co-hosted by Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, the event focused on the possibility of promoting climate justice through an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Since the 2018 virtual climate summit convened by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Vanuatu has been actively exploring all legal avenues, including international ones, to shift the costs of climate protection back onto the fossil fuel companies who knowingly created the crisis.

Minister Regenvanu reiterated this last month when addressing the nearly 1,000 people who participated in Vanuatu’s Strike for the Climate.

To that end, Vanuatu is entertaining the proposal that the UN General Assembly adopt a resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the duties of states to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change. According to the many experts convened, the ICJ merits special consideration in addressing the climate crisis as it is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations – in other words, the highest court in the world.

At the event, Professor Michael Gerrard, professor of law at Columbia and director of the Sabin Center, explained how an advisory opinion from the ICJ could assist Pacific Islanders in the quest for climate justice.

He noted that while advisory opinions are not legally binding, they carry great legal weight and moral authority.

This was clear from past opinions which had shaped the behaviour of states and even corporations.

Ms. Farhana Yamin, a renowned climate law expert, argued that an advisory opinion from the ICJ could lead to higher ambition in states’ climate action.

She dismissed the argument that legal action could disrupt the international climate negotiations, highlighting the benefits of a clear legal framework.

Moreover, Mr. Tony Oposa, another renowned attorney, argued that the ICJ was not only a forum for legal action but also a venue where the youth of the world could tell their story about how climate change is already affecting their lives and threatening their futures.

Youth are already at the forefront of the global struggle for climate justice, he noted.

While participants were generally enthusiastic about the idea of seeking an advisory opinion from the ICJ, it was also noted that there are significant hurdles Vanuatu and other supporting states would need to overcome.

Participants highlighted other alternatives, such as a possible advisory opinion from the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

In concluding the event, Minister Regenvanu called for input from states, legal experts and civil society on the precise question to be put to the ICJ and/or ITLOS.

Vanuatu will continue to discuss these proposals through its diplomatic channels in the coming months.

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