UN adopts landmark climate-rights resolution

Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau delivers a speech before the UN General Assembly in New York, on March 29, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON/SINGAPORE – The United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday adopted a resolution by the tiny Pacific nation of Vanuatu to ask the world’s top court for an opinion on the legal obligations of countries to protect current and future generations from climate change.

The resolution, backed by a slew of states including Singapore and adopted by consensus – that is, without a vote – asks the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to clarify the obligations of big polluters in terms of the human rights of those affected by the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.

It applies particularly to vulnerable, poorer nations including low-lying island states which, although they are among the least responsible for the climate crisis, are the most threatened by more intense storms and rising sea levels.

Decades of burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the main sources of emissions heating up the planet, driving extreme weather events and melting ice caps.

The adoption was greeted by a burst of applause in the General Assembly, and widely hailed by analysts and advocacy groups.

“This is a milestone moment,” said the Climate Action Network (CAN), which comprises more than 1,900 civil society organisations in over 130 countries. An advisory opinion from the ICJ would be a first for the court on the issue of climate change, it noted.

If the ICJ does, as expected, take up the question of rights and climate change, it could take a year or more for an advisory opinion to be handed down.

Such a ruling would provide much stronger moral and political weight to the question of state responsibility for carbon pollution – in turn providing a foundation for future rights-based climate litigation by nations or groups.

Singapore’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Burhan Gafoor tweeted: “A historic resolution adopted by consensus; a big step for climate action, a strong boost for international law and a resounding reaffirmation of multilateralism.”

He added: “Singapore is proud to be part of the core group that led this initiative.”

Singapore was among the 18 core supporting nations.

In a statement in the chamber after the adoption of the resolution, Mr Gafoor said: “Singapore is confident that the resolution will result in an advisory opinion that will advance our collective multilateral and rules-based efforts to address climate change.”

Analysts also noted that Wednesday’s resolution, coming on the heels of the just concluded UN Water Conference – the first in almost five decades – as well as the agreement on protection of biodiversity on the high seas, also earlier this month, showed that multilateralism remains alive and well despite the UN Security Council often being held hostage by great power rivalries.

Amnesty International’s director of climate, economic and social justice and its corporate accountability programme Marta Schaaf said: “This is a landmark moment in the fight for climate justice, as it is likely to provide clarity on how existing international law, especially human rights and environmental legislation, can be applied to strengthen action on climate change.”

At the start of Wednesday’s session, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau stressed than an advisory opinion is a “constructive and unconfrontational route” to climate justice.

“It is not legally binding. However, it does carry enormous legal weight and moral authority,” he said.

“This is not a silver bullet but it can make an important contribution to climate action,” he said. “The world is at a crossroads and we as the international community have the obligation to take greater action.

“Together we can send a loud and clear message into the future that on this very day – the people of the United Nations, acting through their governments, decided to leave behind their differences and act together to tackle the challenge of climate change.”

Mr Gafoor told The Straits Times that Singapore and Vanuatu had worked closely at the UN.

“The reality is that small island developing states are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” he said.

“The scientific evidence for urgent action is clear and compelling; we have to take more ambitious action before it is too late. Singapore’s view is that there is no time to lose.”

“The advisory opinion will help to advance our collective, multilateral and rules-based efforts to address climate change,” he added.

“We need to accelerate global action and ambition. This will not only benefit small island states like Singapore and Vanuatu, but also benefit all nations and the planet as a whole.”

For low-lying Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands, climate change is very much a human rights crisis caused by greenhouse gas pollution emitted by industrialised nations far away.

Vanuatu is no stranger to climate disasters. Earlier this year, the country was hit by two powerful cyclones within days of each other.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam ravaged the country, displacing 65,000 people and causing US$600 million (S$797 million) in economic losses, about 65 per cent of gross domestic product.

A warmer, more acidic ocean is also damaging the nation’s coral reefs, which are vital for fisheries and livelihoods.

The resolution is not a lawsuit, and not about resolving disputes between states, or about reparations, Dr Nilufer Oral, senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law, and a member of the UN International Law Commission, told a media briefing last week.

“It is about informing the rights and obligations under existing international law,” she said.

“An ICJ advisory opinion would provide clarification on legal issues and give important guidance to all states as to the actions and measures to be taken to address this urgent challenge of climate change.”

Climate litigation is already growing rapidly, although specific human rights and climate cases comprise only a small portion of legal cases brought against governments and corporations accused of irresponsibility driving climate change.

An advisory opinion by the ICJ could feed into ongoing efforts for loss and damage funding to pay for climate impacts in poorer nations. For three decades, poorer nations have been pushing for richer nations to pay for irreparable loss and damage.

Mr Gafoor told The Straits Times: “While not binding, the advisory opinion will clarify states’ obligations with regard to climate change under international law.

“This will have an appreciable impact at a time when countries are exploring how best to step up climate action and enhance cooperation to tackle climate change.”

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