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We Need to Take Climate Injustice to Court

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report, the last one while we still have a slender change of preventing the worst. Such was its existential significance that the United Nations Secretary-General called it “a survival guide for humanity.”

For us Pacific islanders, there is no place to hide from the climate crisis, no denying the reality we are facing. In Vanuatu, we are trying to recover from unprecedented back-to-back cyclones battering our island. With frequent and intense cyclones becoming the new normal, we are in a perpetual state of crisis and recovery. The ocean around us is changing in terrifying ways. Our coastlines are eroding due to rising sea levels, and unpredictable rainy seasons threaten our way of life. The climate crisis is not a future threat, but our daily reality.

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Yet we have hope. It is as fragile as the ecosystem under assault around us, but we have not given up on it. The future is still in the hands of humans, and we must act now. And we, who are facing the extremities of this crisis, know better than anyone else that hope calls for action.

That is why, after a group of Pacific Island students proposed that the world’s highest court should be asked to give an advisory ruling which clarifies international law on the climate crisis and human rights, the Vanuatu government took up their call. This week, Vanuatu is leading a group of countries in proposing that the United Nations General Assembly request the International Court of Justice to give such an advisory opinion. So far, 121 countries have joined us to co-sponsor the resolution. If the resolution is adopted as we hope, that would put the case to the ICJ, and an advisory opinion by that court would carry great legal and moral weight, sending a powerful signal about the actions all states need to take.

We frame the legal question in human rights terms because the climate crisis is perhaps the most consequential human rights crisis of all time. It is already causing massive human rights harms to hundreds of millions of people, many of whom have done almost nothing to cause this devastation. It is already threatening the rights to life, self-determination, development, health, food, water and sanitation, adequate housing, and cultural rights—including for some of the most marginalized people in the world. Its effects are worsening the very inequities and injustices that brought us to this point.

The climate crisis threatens to change the entire arena in which everyone’s human rights may be realized. Existential threats to whole countries, population shifts, and political backlashes will all have complex effects. Just like climate science itself, the human-rights chain reactions are impossible to predict beyond a certain point.

Lack of ambitious action—and worse, the continuation of practices that exacerbate the crisis—would be a catastrophic betrayal of human rights, both now and in the future.

The tools and mechanisms of the human rights system give us powerful ways to respond to this crisis. It is based upon the legally binding obligations of states, and it places on them a duty of international cooperation. The U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also place clear responsibilities upon corporations, who have an essential role to play in confronting the climate crisis and addressing its consequences.

Human rights can also provide the guardrails for a just transition to a green economy—one that will protect people and the economic development of historically impoverished countries at risk of falling behind. Whether it is Indigenous peoples in South America whose ancient lands are prospected for rare earth minerals, communities in the U.S. or Europe whose livelihoods have long depended on fossil fuels, or peoples in Africa and Asia whose prospects of economic development are sensitive to geopolitical shifts, we need a framework that will protect people from an energy transition that threatens to trample over them.

The March 2023 Port Vila Call in Vanuatu agreement between six Pacific nations called for a just transition to a Pacific free of fossil fuels, and reaffirmed that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis take responsibility for turning the tides. And this requires that historic inequities are corrected. Human rights will help us to define what that looks like and give people a way of holding states and corporations to account in making it happen. From mitigation to climate financing to adaptation, there are many areas where human rights can provide the specificity and clarity that we need.

Most importantly, human rights can help us to imagine a world that is different from the one that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe—and begin to realize it. In doing that, the world must follow the leadership of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

We face a huge task, an existential one. Vanuatu is stepping up. We thank all the countries who are standing together with us. We call on all the nations of the world to join us.

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