The United Nations General Assembly voted on Wednesday to pass a resolution asking the world’s top court to define the obligations of states to combat climate change, a legal opinion that could drive countries to take stronger measures and clarify international law.
The historic resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice made it to the UN General Assembly after a four-year campaign led by the Republic of Vanuatu and was passed with a consensus vote. It was inspired by Pacific island law students who want the international legal system to deliver climate justice.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau said the resolution and advisory opinion “will have a powerful and positive impact on how we address climate change and protect present and future generations.”
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“Together we will send a loud and clear message not only around the world but far into the future that on this very day, the people of the UN acting through their governments decided to leave aside differences and work together to tackle the defining challenge of our time,” he said before the General Assembly.
An advisory opinion by the court, judicial organ of the UN, would not be binding in any jurisdiction, but could underpin future climate negotiations by clarifying financial obligations countries have on climate change, helping states revise and enhance national climate plans submitted to the Paris Agreement, as well as strengthening domestic policies and legislation.
“Such an opinion would assist the General Assembly, the UN and Member States to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Wednesday.
The push for the resolution was driven by Vanuatu and a core group of 18 countries ranging from Costa Rica to Germany.
On the eve of the vote, Vanuatu diplomats were still trying to win support from China and the US, or at least to convince the two biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries not to raise objections.
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions must be nearly halved by 2030.
Vanuatu and other vulnerable countries are already grappling with powerful impacts of a heating planet. The south Pacific island nation has been slammed by climate-fueled cyclones, including two category-four cyclones this month that left 10 percent of its population still in evacuation centers.
It could take the ICJ around 18 months to issue an advisory opinion, with countries submitting input over the next year.
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