UN calls for ICJ to outline legal obligations on climate change

Thursday March 30 2023
UN general assembly

The UN General Assembly on March 29, 2023 called for the International Court of Justice to lay out nations' legal obligations in combatting climate change. PHOTO | ED JONES | AFP


The United Nations (UN) General Assembly on Wednesday took a major step towards urgent global climate action as members adopted a resolution calling for the world body's top court to outline nations' legal obligations related to curbing warming.

Cheers rang out as the measure was greenlighted by consensus. It was hailed as a victory for the climate justice movement which hopes it will increase pressure on polluting countries failing to address the global warming emergency.

Pushed for years by Vanuatu (a small archipelago whose future is threatened by rising sea levels) and by Pacific islander youth, the resolution asks the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to lay out nations' obligations for protecting Earth's climate and the legal consequences they face if they do not.

"Together, you are making history," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, emphasizing that even if non-binding, an ICJ opinion would assist the UN General Assembly as well as member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. PHOTO | KARIM JAAFAR | AFP

Ultimately co-sponsored by more than 130 member states, the resolution had been widely expected to be approved.


"Today we have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions," said Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau whose country was ravaged by two powerful cyclones earlier this month.

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“It is a win for people and communities across the world that are at the frontlines of the climate crisis," said Lavetanalagi Seru, regional policy coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (Pican).

The government of Vanuatu started lobbying for the measure in 2021 after a campaign initiated by a group of students from a Fiji university in 2019.

The adoption comes at critical moment days after the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) panel of climate experts warned global average temperatures could reach 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2030-2035, underlining the need for drastic action this decade.

‘New resolution feels accurate’

While nations have no legal obligation under the 2015 Paris Agreement to meet emission reduction targets, the new resolution's backers hope other instruments including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea could offer pathways for enforcement.

"This resolution centres human rights and intergenerational equity when addressing climate change, two critical points that have been missing from much of the dominant discourse," Shaina Sadai of the Union for Concerned Scientists advocacy group told AFP.

“This new resolution feels accurate as the most important global move since the Paris Agreement,” Sadai said, adding it was a critical next step for lending guidance to lawsuits being brought in courts around the world.

The adoption comes the same day cases opened before the European Court of Human Rights against France and Switzerland over alleged failings to protect the environment, marking the first-time governments are in the court's dock for alleged climate change inaction.

Although ICJ opinions are not binding, they carry significant legal as well as moral weight and are often taken into account by national courts.

Vanuatu and supporters hope the forthcoming ICJ opinion expected in about two years, will encourage governments to accelerate their action.

Read: Pacific nations want fossil fuels phased out

US and China stance

The enthusiasm however is not universal.

"I see scenarios where this request would be counterproductive," Benoit Mayer, a specialist in international law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong told AFP.

He warned of a possible disaster scenario if the ICJ opinion is clear and precise, but contrary to what the supporters of the request wanted.

Although no country objected to the resolution's consensus adoption, the US and China, the world's two largest emitters were not co-sponsors.


Nuclear power plants. PHOTO | AFP

"We have serious concerns that this process could complicate our collective efforts and will not bring us closer to achieving these shared goals," said US Representative Nicholas Hill, stressing he prefers diplomacy to a judicial process he warned could accentuate disagreements.

The resolution notably asks the ICJ to clarify "legal consequences" for states which have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment.

It specifically asks the court to weigh obligations to small developing island states, which are vulnerable to climate change as well as obligations to future generations.

During negotiations on the Paris Agreement, US diplomats secured the addition of language specifying that the text does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.