The UN General Assembly adopts climate justice resolution

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution seeking the ICJ for an advisory opinion on the duties of States concerning climate change.

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Wednesday, 29 March 2023, adopted a resolution seeking the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s chief judicial organ, which is also referred to as the World Court, for an advisory opinion on the duties of States concerning climate change. This decision marks the first time the World Court has been asked to elaborate on nations’ legal responsibilities to maintain the climate system or the consequences for not doing so.

The background of this UN General Assembly’s resolution 

The draft resolution titled “Request for an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States in respect of climate change” was the result of the work of a global coalition of states, the so-called “ICJ Core Group” which was led by the South Pacific Ocean island country of Vanuatu, a nation highly vulnerable to climate change. A group of 132 co-sponsors also backed the ICJ Resolution.

Vanuatu had announced in October 2022 to the UN General Assembly that, along with the Core group of states, it would bring a draft resolution to the General Assembly requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on States’ climate change-related legal obligations and rights.

The “ICJ Core Group” behind the draft resolution was led by the South Pacific Ocean nation of Vanuatu © Matt Blyth/Getty Images

This resolution was adopted by consensus, without taking a vote, at the 77th session of the UNGA in New York, United States.

“The intense and engaged negotiations with the core group as well as with a broader UN membership, were an indication of the importance of this initiative, but also of the collective desire to work towards addressing the climate crisis,” said Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau, Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

“This is not a silver bullet, but it can make an important contribution to climate change, climate action, including by catalyzing much higher ambition under the Paris Agreement.”

What is going to happen now? 

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion can be expected within six to twelve months after the oral hearings. While this advisory opinion is not legally binding, it can support attempts to hold countries responsible for their climate commitments, support climate negotiations, and be cited in climate lawsuits.

Courts can translate the clear scientific evidence that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis into clear legal imperatives to phase them out now and implement proven available solutions. They also can – and indeed must – hold states accountable for the mounting suffering caused by their failure to act. Nikki Reisch, Director of CIEL

The milestones reached today affirm the power of community-driven, people-centered campaigns for climate justice and accountability. They also reinforce the critical role of courts in breaking through the inertia when politics break down. Both the hearings at the European Court and the resolution at the United Nations mark important steps toward clarifying what existing law requires states to do to curb climate change and protect human rights. Said Nikki Reisch, Director of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)’s Climate and Energy Program, in a statement commenting on the UNGA’s resolution and the public hearings on climate cases at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

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