UN brings climate change to the World Court

Briefly: On Wednesday, the UN General Assembly agreed to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on countries’ obligations to address climate change. The resolution was put forward by the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu.

Some 130 countries co-sponsored the resolution, which ended up passing without a vote – a small miracle, considering a) the US and China (the world’s top emitters) were notably ‘meh’ about the proposal, and b) the UN loves voting.

Vanuatu said China didn’t respond to a request to co-sponsor the resolution. For its part, the US said taking the matter to court “will likely accentuate disagreements”. But in the end, the two rivals found some rare (if uninspiring) common ground: they neither sponsored nor opposed the resolution.

It passed just weeks after Vanuatu was hit by two back-to-back cyclones, the severity of which the country’s leaders attributed to global warming. Vanuatu already has the highest disaster risk in the world.

The ICJ will now take up to 18 months to deliver its opinion, which will be highly influential but not legally binding.

Intrigue’s take: Wednesday’s news was the culmination of four years of campaigning led by Vanuatu. And it all started as an idea from law students at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. So it’s hard not to cheer the David & Goliath angle.

But this win is also being celebrated across the entire Pacific Islands community, which has chafed at being seen as a mere prize in the US-China rivalry. The region has long identified climate as a top priority, and yet neither China nor the US backed Wednesday’s resolution. Something’s gotta give.

Also worth noting:

  • This isn’t the first time Vanuatu has played a lead role on climate issues: the UN’s COP27 climate summit last year agreed to create a loss and damage fund, which Vanuatu first proposed back in 1991.
  • The Pacific Island nations of Palau and the Marshall Islands attempted to pass a similar climate resolution at the UN in 2011.
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