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Pacific nations gather support to bring climate change to the International Court of justice

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The existence of Pacific islands is threatened by climate change. Sea level rise is a recognized threat to low-lying coastal areas on islands and atolls, while higher sea surface temperatures will result in the degradation of coral reef ecosystems that island communities often depend on. Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific, home to about 300,000 people, is leading an international campaign to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague "to protect the rights of present and future generations against the effects of climate change", reports

The initiative is expected to gain support at the Pacific Island Forum held in Fiji’s capital city Suva this week, and Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister is hopeful that regional leaders, including those from Australia and New Zealand, will support it. The plan would then go the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The idea originated from law students from the University of the South Pacific back in 2019, who formed the organisation Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC) and wrote to leaders of Pacific nations asking them to take the issue of climate change and human rights to the International Court of Justice and seek an Advisory Opinion. The Government of Vanuatu announced in September 2021 its intentions to lead the campaign.

The Advisory Opinion would be a tool to boost action on climate change, complementing the Paris Agreement and integrating human rights and climate change. To get to the ICJ, the UN General Assembly has to pass a resolution requesting the ICJ to provide its opinion; Vanuatu’s efforts are trying to secure nations’ support at the General Assembly for such a resolution, while Civil Society Organizations in the Pacific region and beyond have formed an alliance to advance the campaign. An Advisory Opinion is not legally binding, but carries great legal and moral authority. In the past, advisory opinions have been instrumental in establishing international laws on the right to self-determination, the prevention of genocide and nuclear disarmament.

Pacific leaders are expected to discuss Vanuatu’s climate change campaign this Friday at the forum. Of particular interest is the position of Australia, a major greenhouse gas emitter in the region. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he supports the “the broad concept” of the campaign but would need to discuss the specifics. New Zealand’s Primer Minister Jacinda Arden said her government supported the principle: “This would be one of a number of measures that … those who are most climate-affected are seeking to take to ensure that those who have the greatest power and the largest impact on climate emissions reduction, (to) make sure that they are doing their bit”.

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