On March 29, Vanuatu, a string of more than 80 islands in the South Pacific Ocean, obtained a large victory for climate justice at the United Nations Assembly in New York. This victory calls on the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to establish the legal obligations of countries to address the climate crises for the first time. These legal obligations enforce the idea that countries with greater pollution should assist with climate-intensified disaster recovery costs in poorer countries. This idea was petitioned by a group of Pacific Island students, motivated by the need for recovery and sustainability and endorsed by the Vanuatu government, who took it to the international stage.
Vanuatu’s climate intensified disasters prompted the country to seek compensation for countries responsible for climate-warming pollution. In March, a rare pair of Category 4 cyclones hit Vanuatu, placing the country into a six-month long state of emergency. At least 80% of the 320,000-person population was affected by the cyclones that arrived back-to-back. The country’s National Disaster Management Office estimates that infrastructure restoration could take more than three years and demands a recovery bill of $50 million. Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world and has “long faced the disproportionate impacts of rising seas and intensifying storms.” This is not a recent development either. In 2015 Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Pam, which brought winds up to 200 miles per hour. According to The Atlantic, “President Baldwin Lonsdale called the storm a "monster" that killed dozens, destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the buildings in the capital, and will force the nation to start anew.” This is another example of the costly disasters scattered throughout Vanuatu’s history.
Vanuatu’s climate-related damages raise objections to the fairness of low-carbon emission countries bearing costs of climate damage as opposed to greater contributors to pollution such as the United States and China. Vanuatu first launched its “call for the UN International Court of Justice to provide an “advisory opinion” in 2021, which prospectively would strengthen the position of climate-vulnerable countries in international negotiations and would inform future global climate lawsuits. On Wednesday March 29, this request for an advisory opinion was finally passed and according to CNN news: “Wednesday’s resolution for an advisory opinion passed by majority, backed by more than 130 countries.”
What exactly does this resolution mean for international environmental law? The resolution states that the UN General Assembly will seek the ICJ’s opinion regarding legal consequences for states who “by their acts and omissions”, damage the climate in such a way that it affects others. Andy Raine, head of the Frontiers in Environmental Law Unit at the Law Division of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) offers commentary about what this resolution means for small island nations like Vanuatu, who are the most vulnerable to climate change adversities, stating that:
“This is a very significant development for climate justice for present and future generations. It is the first time that the world’s highest court has been asked to clarify the obligations on states to protect the climate system, and the legal consequences of failing to meet them.”
This will provide new support for the future of Pacific Islands in instances of destructive storms, rising seas, and other climate change damages by holding countries legally accountable for worsening climate change. Raine further stated:
“It also puts the spotlight on the legal consequences for causing significant harm to both vulnerable small island developing states, such as Vanuatu, as well as future generations, opening the door to greater accountability owed to these groups. It also highlights the power of civil society; this resolution was the result of pressure from law students from the Pacific Islands.”
This statement highlighting the power of civil society will soon be observable as the ICJ takes the first steps in issuing advisories.
In upcoming months, the ICJ will work to assemble relevant documentation and the UN Secretary General will compile a dossier of documents to submit to the court. This process is expected to conclude within the next 12 months upon the ICJ’s issuing of advisories. ICJ advisory rulings may not be legally binding on countries, however ICJ advisory opinions may “be cited in cases in domestic courts and will help those who bring countries or companies to court over their climate-related acts or omissions.”
Vanuatu’s proposed resolution passing at the end of March and the ICJ’s future issuance of advisories is a huge victory for climate justice, such as compensation for the climate intensified cyclones that Vanuatu has faced. This resolution also reiterates the role of international climate law to give “life to climate commitments and our human rights”. International law’s role on climate change now has a greater role, as advisories can be used in future trials over accountability for climate change-related damages.