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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

In historic move, UN asks World Court to weigh in on climate change

Requests for advisory opinions are rare: The court has been asked to provide a nonbinding opinion fewer than 30 times in its nearly 80-year existence.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — The United Nations has passed a resolution asking the International Court of Justice to issue a legal opinion on what obligations countries have to protect their citizens from climate change. 

The U.N. General Assembly voted Wednesday to send a request for an advisory opinion – which is nonbinding but legally important – to the ICJ, also known as the World Court, the U.N.’s highest legal body. It is the first time The Hague-based court has been asked to weigh in on the climate crisis. 

The push has been led by the island nation of Vanuatu, a chain of some 80 islands about 500 miles long in the South Pacific Ocean. 

The historic request comes weeks after a pair of cyclones hit Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, causing substantial damage. The advisory opinion “will have a powerful and positive impact on how we address climate change and protect present and future generations,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau told the U.N. General Assembly following the vote. 

The idea for an opinion from the ICJ began in a classroom at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, where law students became convinced it was the best path to force the global community to curb greenhouse emissions. Vanuatu is leading a core group of 18 countries, from Liechtenstein to Costa Rica, that have advocated for the resolution. Ultimately more than 130 countries voted in support. Both the U.S. and China abstained. 

“We need to pursue every legal avenue,” Aoife Fleming of World's Youth for Climate Justice, which has backed the movement for an opinion, told Courthouse News in an interview. Previous attempts to make the request by Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands and Palau – all coastal or island nations – have failed. 

Under Article 96 of the U.N. Charter, both the General Assembly and the Security Council can ask the ICJ for advice on any legal matter. The bulk of requests for advisory opinions happened soon after the court was established in 1946 and focused on clarifying early aspects of the U.N. itself. The court has received fewer than 30 such total requests in its nearly 80-year existence.

Though the opinion itself will be nonbinding, advisory opinions from the ICJ carry substantial legal weight.

“This is not the only goal, it’s another step in the right direction,” Fleming said.

In recent years, the court has weighed in on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the construction of a wall in Palestine and the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. The United Kingdom has so far ignored the opinion in the Chagos case and refused to return the islands. 

In January, the U.N. passed a resolution asking the ICJ to weigh in on whether Israel is violating the human rights of the people living in Palestine. 

Vanuatu is also involved in another request for an advisory opinion from a separate U.N. court. In February, the Commission of Small Island States – a body formed in 2021 solely to pursue the advisory opinion that includes Antigua and Barbuda, Niue, Palau, Saint Vincent, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu – asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to weigh in on sea level rise.

The intergovernmental organization based in Hamburg was created in 1994 to deal with maritime disputes. Hearings on that request are expected to be held later this year. 

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Courts, Environment, Government, International

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