Island states back Vanuatu’s quest for climate justice at the UN

Vanuatu is calling on the International Court of Justice to prepare a climate litigation toolkit, but first it needs a majority at the UN general assembly

Local officials examine the damage caused by Cyclone Pam which battered Vanuatu in 2015 (Photo: UN Women/Ellie van Baaren/Flickr)


Pacific and Caribbean nations have joined Vanuatu in calling for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on countries’ legal obligations to protect people from climate harm. 

Formed of more than 80 islands stretched across 1,300 kilometres, Vanuatu is facing sea level rise and increasingly powerful cyclones that periodically cripple its economy.

With the world not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, on which the survival of vulnerable nations like Vanuatu depends, the Pacific island state decided to take the issue to the UN’s main judicial arm.

The island of 310,000 needs a simple majority of countries at the UN general assembly in September to give the ICJ a mandate to act.

A successful vote “would send a clear signal to present and future generations that no stone is being left unturned in this critical decade to change course,” Odo Tevi, Vanuatu’s special climate envoy and permanent representative to the UN, told Climate Home News.

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Under the proposal, the ICJ would be tasked with interpreting what international human rights and environmental laws mean for states’ responsibility to act on the causes and consequences of climate change.

It has no enforcement powers and the exercise is not designed to win reparations for victims of climate disasters.

But an ICJ opinion could inform climate lawsuits around the world and – Vanuatu hopes – strengthen vulnerable countries’ position in international negotiations.

“Climate litigation is one of the tools that has been used to good effect in certain forums and speaks to growing discontent with the status quo and lack of ambition in addressing climate change,” said Tevi.

The idea for pursuing this judicial route originates from environmental law students at Vanuatu’s University of the South Pacific campus, who asked the foreign ministry to consider it.

After deliberations and delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vanuatu’s government decided to take on the case in September 2021.

Romabeth Siri is a 25-year-old campaigner with the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change.

A law graduate, she joined the student campaign after cyclone Harold, the second category 5 storm to hit the country in five years, battered her home island of Santo in April 2020. At least 27 people were reported to have died.

“My family who are largely subsistence farmers are heavily reliant on agriculture to generate an income. Having the cyclone destroy what took my family generations to cultivate and sustain made me want to find a solution to this climate crisis within a legal context,” she told Climate Home.

“If governments continue to disregard their citizens’ rights and voices by failing to protect their human rights from the climate crisis, citizens are going to exercise their rights in holding their government accountable in the court of law,” she said.

A family stands next to what used to be their outdoor toilet after the passage of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila (Photo: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP/Flickr)

Tevi is tasked with gathering support for Vanuatu’s initiative in New York. But he started closer to home.

The strategy, he explained, was to engage with the Pacific community first and, from there, build a coalition of like-minded vulnerable countries. “That’s important because climate change poses an existential threat to Pacific island countries but to small states in general,” he said.

Heads of government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) endorsed the idea during a conference in Belize in March. Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 civil society organisations from 130 countries, threw its weight behind the campaign earlier this month.

Discussions are ongoing with capitals in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, said Tevi, who described the “hard work” of Vanuatu’s diplomatic corps to get a vote over the line. “So far progress has been good.”

It is a big job for a small nation. In 2012, the sinking archipelagos of Palau and the Marshall Islands tried and failed to secure a majority for a similar request, in the face of US opposition.

“Navigating the political landscape at the UN is a minefield, so we’re watchful about that,” Kevin Chand, a legal advisor to Vanuatu’s permanent mission at the UN, told Climate Home.

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