UN Asks International Court for Direction on Climate Polluters
Iririki Island, Vanuatu. The south Pacific island is severely threatened by climate change.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolved this week to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to clarify the obligations of member states under international law “to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases”.

The request came via a resolution passed by UNGA on Wednesday that was championed by Vanuatu, a collection of islands in the south Pacific that are under severe threat of climate change.

The resolution asks the Hague-based ICJ to provide a legal opinion on the legal consequences for states if, by their acts and omissions, they “have caused significant harm” to the climate and environment with respect to other states, in particular, small island developing states, and people affected by these adverse effects.

Major polluters such as the US and China could be sued for damages if the ICJ finds that they have violated their obligations in terms of various international agreements, including the UN Charter, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In terms of the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to aim to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) with an upper limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F).

The resolution was driven by Vanuatu, supported by Antigua & Barbuda, Costa Rica, Sierra Leone, Angola, Germany, Mozambique, Liechtenstein, Samoa, Micronesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Singapore, Uganda, New Zealand, Vietnam, Romania and Portugal. It had the support of 133 nations.

“We in the Pacific live the climate crisis. It is our present and it is our future that is being sold out. The vote in the UN is a step in the right direction for climate justice,” said Cynthia Nouniuhi, president of the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC) after the vote.


“If and when given, 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 told the General Assembly before the resolution was adopted.

The ICJ is expected to hold public hearings and could take up to two years to issue its advisory opinion.

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