Civil society groups back Vanuatu's quest to link human rights and climate change

Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman addressing virtually the UN General Assembly in New York City on Sept 25, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - A global alliance of civil society groups on Thursday (May 5) backed a bid by the Pacific nation of Vanuatu to put human rights at the centre of global efforts to fight climate change.

Vanuatu is planning to ask the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September to vote on a proposal to take the question of human rights impacts of climate change to the world's highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

A simple majority vote by the UNGA would send the question to the ICJ, which would be asked to consider the matter and issue what is called an advisory opinion.

Vulnerable developing nations, such as small island states, see climate change as a human rights issue because their very existence is being threatened by climate impacts.

They have been pushing wealthier and more polluting countries to take responsibility for their greenhouse gas emissions, which are heating up the planet and triggering more extreme weather events.

Poorer nations are being hit by more powerful storms, heatwaves, droughts and rising sea levels. Freshwater supplies are being threatened, along with crops and livelihoods. They say they are suffering the worst impacts, yet are the least responsible for the emissions.

"We who have contributed the least to carbon pollution continue to bear the greatest burden," said Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman at Thursday's launch in Fiji of the global coalition of civil society groups.

"The climate crisis is heart-wrenching. The climate crisis is a moral crisis, a crisis of conscience," he said. 

"The climate crisis is a human rights crisis," he added.

The civil society alliance includes the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change, Climate Action Network - International, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 350 Pacific, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network and Vanuatu Climate Action Network.

Their aim is to rally nations at the UNGA to approve Vanuatu's ICJ proposal.

Vanuatu has been among the most vocal nations pushing for stronger action on climate change. The country is listed as one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters, including earthquakes, and also storms.

Cyclone Pam devastated swathes of the South Pacific in 2015, including Vanuatu. In April 2020, maximum Category 5 Cyclone Harold displaced about 65,000 people in Vanuatu, causing US$600 million (S$831 million) in economic losses, the equivalent of about 65 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

About 160,000 people, more than half of the total population, needed assistance, ReliefWeb said at the time.

An ICJ ruling would explore how climate change is affecting the human rights of people and create legal clarity on how to address it. The court says an advisory opinion holds significant legal weight in international law.

Its opinion would likely influence the climate change ambition of countries by focusing on obligations to prevent harm from emissions and protect human rights, Greenpeace said.

"This campaign to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice is critical to front-line climate-affected communities, ensuring that every climate action and initiatives by our governments are grounded on the principles of human rights, justice and intergenerational equity," said Mr Lavetanalagi Seru, regional policy coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, in a statement.

An ICJ opinion could also bolster efforts by climate-vulnerable nations to create a financing mechanism under the emerging area of "loss and damage" in UN climate negotiations.

Poorer nations want support for loss and damage caused by climate change but the concept has met resistance from richer nations, which fear massive liability claims.

However, Mr Loughman said the ICJ court process is about inspiring the world to have greater climate ambition, rather than going after individual nations.

"This is a campaign to build ambition, not division. This is a campaign to uplift the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is a campaign for the young generations' call for justice to the world's highest court," he added, referring to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

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