While larger countries continue to increase emissions, the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is leading the fight for the climate. The country’s government submitted a resolution to the United Nations on Wednesday, March 29, supported by 117 member states. The text asks the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an opinion on countries that, “by their actions or omissions, have caused significant damage to the climate system”, in an effort to seek “climate justice of epic proportions”, in the words of Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau.
It would be easy to dismiss this latest development as yet another international legal action that will have no impact on the situation on the ground, yet this represents a significant step forward for climate action. As the Guardian explains, it “sets out the obligations of states under international law to combat climate change and specifies the possible consequences of their inaction”. The Vanuatu government emphasized that it is not seeking the court’s opinion in order to introduce new restrictions, but rather to clarify the existing obligations of other governments with regard to ensuring further damage to the environment.
“Vanuatu has no more time,” as the Prime Minister added in a video statement to the UN. “The country sees today’s historic resolution as the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate cooperation, one that is fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and an era that places human rights and intergenerational equity at the forefront of climate decision-making.
With rising temperatures leading to rising sea levels, the archipelago of 80 islands and its 319,000 inhabitants are acutely exposed to the risk of submersion in the long term, and to extreme weather events in the short term, including twin cyclones that hit in early March and affected two thirds of the population.
While Vanuatu has “long been at the forefront” in the fight against climate change, it has had to convince other Pacific island nations, then a majority among the 193 countries that make up the United Nations to co-sign its resolution, according to Climate Change News. Most European nations, as well as Australia, Canada, Vietnam, Colombia and Bangladesh have all signed the resolution.
By achieving such wide consensus the Vanuatu government hopes to influence the largest nations. The United States, for example, whose failure to reach its goal of $100 billion in annual spending on climate mitigation measures is underlined in the resolution. Experts like Grist say that while the ICJ’s legal view would be non-binding, it could then be cited in climate court cases around the world and could “influence ongoing climate trials and international negotiations in favor of vulnerable countries.”
From classroom to courtroom
For some of the law students at the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, the idea of getting the world’s top court to rule on climate change initially seemed too ambitious. “Let’s get real here,” said Cynthia Houniuhi, a law student and president of Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change. “How can a small group of students from the Pacific convince the majority of the UN members to support this initiative?” But the students were ultimately persuaded by the obvious signs of climate change all around them. They then drafted a letter to Pacific island leaders which brought a positive response from Vanuatu, as well as Professor Jorge Viñuales. His advice was to go aim for the International Court of Justice directly. “This is climate change. You don’t go through the backdoor,” he told BBC News.
Previous efforts to go down this route have failed because of a lack of support, but the growing impacts of rising temperatures have changed minds and votes at the UN. “This was an opportunity to do something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our fears, something important for our future,” said Ms Houniuhi.
On the archipelago Slow Food has three communities part of the Indigenous Peoples Network: the Nawi growers of Eton aim to preserve and promote the yam and its different varieties according to the local indigenous knowledge and culture. The Qorr growers of Vetimboso work to protect and promote the important traditional Qorr (yam) varieties that protects the community. The Taro growers of Anouyac work to To ensure the Intal (colacasia esculenta) crop is protected and promoted by the community, which has cultural significance in the people’s daily lives.
Courrier International Climatiques