As a matter of global justice, the climate crisis has rightfully made its way to the world’s highest court.
On 29 March 2023, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously adopted a resolution asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of states on climate change. The initiative was led by the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, one of several at risk of disappearance under rising sea levels. It was co-sponsored by 132 states and actively supported by networks of grassroots youth groups from the Pacific and around the world.
Civil society’s campaign
In 2019, a group of law students from the University of the South Pacific formed Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), a regional organization with national chapters in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. PISFCC advocated with the Pacific Island Forum – the key regional body – to put the call for an ICJ opinion on its agenda. The government of Vanuatu announced it would seek this in September 2021, and Pacific civil society organizations (CSOs) formed an alliance – the Alliance for a Climate Justice Advisory Opinion – that has since grown to include CSOs and many others from around the world, including UN Special Rapporteurs and global experts.
The campaign made heavy use of social media, with people sharing their stories on the impacts of climate change and emphasizing the importance of an ICJ opinion to help support calls for climate action, including climate litigation. It organized globally, sharing a toolkit used by activists around the world, and took to the streets locally. In Vanuatu, where it all started, children demonstrated in September 2022 to call attention to the impacts of climate change as their country’s single greatest development threat and express support for the call for an ICJ opinion.
In the run-up to the UNGA session that adopted the historic resolution, thousands of CSOs from around the world supported a letter calling for governments to back the vote.
The ICJ’s role
The ICJ is made up of 15 judges elected by the UNGA and UN Security Council. It settles legal disputes between states and provides advisory opinions on legal questions referred to by other parts of the UN system.
The questions posed to the ICJ aim to clarify the obligations of states under international law to protect the climate system and environment from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. They also ask about the legal responsibilities of states that have caused significant environmental harm towards other states, particularly small islands, and towards current and future generations.
To provide its advisory opinion, the ICJ will have to interpret states’ obligations as outlined in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a variety of international covenants and treaties. It may consider previous UNGA resolutions on climate change, such as the recent one recognizing access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right, and other resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council and reports by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and its independent human rights experts. It may also take into account decisions by UN treaty bodies and its own jurisprudence on climate and environmental matters.
According to its statute, the ICJ can seek written statements from states or international organizations likely to have relevant information on the issue at hand. On April 20, it communicated its decision to treat the UN and all its member states as ‘likely to be able to furnish information on the questions submitted to the Court’ and gave them six months to submit written statements, after which they will have three months to make written comments on statements made by other states or organisations.
Civil society does not have any right to submit formal statements, so climate activists are urging as many people as possible to advocate towards their governments to make strong submissions that will lead to a progressive ICJ opinion. After submissions close, the ICJ is likely to take several months to deliberate, so its opinion may be expected at some point in 2024, likely towards the end of the year.
Advisory opinions aren’t binding. They don’t impose obligations on states. But they shape the global understanding of states’ obligations under international law and can motivate states to show their compliance with rising standards. An ICJ opinion could positively influence climate negotiations, pushing forward long-delayed initiatives on funding for loss and damage. It could encourage states to make more ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It might also help raise awareness of the particular risks faced by small island states and provide arguments in favor of stronger climate action, helping climate advocates gain ground within governments.
A progressive advisory opinion could also help support domestic climate litigation: research shows that domestic courts are increasingly inclined to cite ICJ opinions and other sources of international law, including when it comes to deciding climate issues.
The risk can’t be ruled out of a disappointing ICJ opinion merely reiterating the content of existing climate treaties without making any progress on states’ obligations. But climate activists find reasons to expect much more: many see this as a unique opportunity, brought about by their own persistent efforts, to advance climate justice and push for action that meets the scale of the crisis.
Ines M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.
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