Climate change gets its day in court: global issues

  • Opinion: By Ines M Pusadela (Montevideo, Uruguay)
  • Inter press service

Civil Society Campaign

In 2019, a group of law students from the University of the South Pacific established the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), a regional organization with national chapters in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. The PISFCC has agreed with the Pacific Islands Forum, a key regional body, to place the call for an ICJ opinion on its agenda. The government of Vanuatu announced it would pursue this in September 2021, and Pacific civil society organizations (CSOs) formed an alliance, the Climate Justice Advisory Alliance, which has since grown to include CSOs and many others from around the world, including the UN. special rapporteurs and global experts.

The campaign made extensive use of social media, with people sharing their stories of the impact of climate change and highlighting the importance of the ICJ opinion to support calls for climate action, including climate litigation. It organized globally, sharing tools used by activists around the world, and took to the streets on the ground. In Vanuatu, where it all began, children demonstrated in September 2022 to draw attention to the impact of climate change as the single biggest threat to their country’s development, and to support the call for an ICJ opinion.

Ahead of the UN General Assembly session that adopted the historic resolution, thousands of CSOs from around the world signed a letter urging governments to support the vote.

The role of the ICJ

The ICJ is composed of 15 judges elected by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. It settles legal disputes between states and provides advisory opinions on legal issues referred to it by other parts of the UN system.

The questions submitted to the ICJ aim to clarify the obligations of states under international law to protect the climate system and the environment from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. They also ask about the legal responsibilities of states that have caused significant environmental damage to other states, especially small islands, and to present and future generations.

In order to provide its advisory opinion, the ICJ must interpret the obligations of states as set out in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of international covenants and treaties. It may consider previous UN General Assembly resolutions on climate change, such as the recent resolution recognizing access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right, and other UN Human Rights Council resolutions and the UN Reports of the Office of the High Commissioner. Human rights and its independent human rights experts. It can also take into account decisions of UN treaty bodies and its own jurisprudence on climate and environmental issues.

Next steps

Under its statute, the ICC may request written statements from states or international organizations that are likely to have relevant information on the matter. On April 20, it handed down its decision, treating the UN and all its member states as “likely to be able to provide information on the issues before the court” and giving them six months to submit written statements, after which they will have three; months to provide written comments on statements made by other states or organizations.

Civil society does not have the right to submit official statements, so climate activists are urging as many people as possible to advocate for their governments to make strong claims that will lead to a progressive opinion at the ICJ. The ICJ will likely take several months to deliberate after submissions close, so its opinion could be expected sometime in 2024, possibly before the end of the year.

Advisory opinions are not binding. They do not impose obligations on the states. But they shape the global understanding of states’ obligations under international law and can motivate states to demonstrate their compliance with rising standards. The ICJ’s opinion could have a positive impact on climate negotiations by advancing long-delayed initiatives on loss and damage financing. That could encourage states to make more ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It can also help raise awareness of the particular risks small island states face and make the case for stronger climate action, helping climate advocates gain a foothold in governments.

An advanced advisory opinion can also support domestic climate litigation; research shows that domestic courts are increasingly inclined to refer to ICJ opinions and other sources of international law, including when deciding climate issues.

The risk cannot be ruled out from a disappointing ICJ opinion that simply repeats the content of existing climate treaties without making any progress on states’ obligations. But climate activists have reason to expect much more. many see this as a unique opportunity created by their own persistent efforts to advance climate justice and push for action commensurate with the scale of the crisis.

Inés M. Pousadela is a senior researcher at CIVICUS, co-director and writer of CIVICUS Lens, and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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