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Request for an ICJ Advisory Opinion on Climate Change

On 29 March 2023, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resultion requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to clarify States’ international obligations concerning climate change. This resolution, Res. A/77/L.58, was prepared on the initiative of the Government of Vanuatu, and was adopted by consensus by the UNGA. The request is currently pending before the ICJ.

In September 2021, during the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Vanuatu, Hon. Bob Loughman Weibur, announced that the country would build a coalition of States to seek an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The initiative received support from a large number of co-sponsoring states.

The proposal aims to contest “environmental devastation and large-scale violations of human rights for the most vulnerable”. Under the slogan of “bringing the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court”, this initative was originally spearheaded by a group of students from the University of the South Pacific. By July 2022, the alliance behind the initative included over 1500 civil society organisations in 130 countries. It also received the endorsement of the Organisation of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS).

In July 2022, Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change, Hon. Silas Bule Melve, clarified the country’s ambitions for the advisory opinion. He stated that “[t]his is not a court case, and we do not seek to assign blame. But we do seek a credible way to bolster climate ambition moving forward to save the Paris Agreement and our blue planet”. The Republic’s legal team in this endeavor is led by Julian Aguon and Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh of the Pacific law firm Blue Ocean Law.

This approach follows an earlier initiative from 2012, by Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which did not manage to rally a majority of General Assembly members in suport of presenting a question concerning climate change to the ICJ.

Question put to the ICJ:
The resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 29 March 2023. It decided, in accordance with Article 96 UN Charter, to request the ICJ, pursuant to Article 65 of its Statute, to render an advisory opinion on the following question:

“Having particular regard to the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the duty of due diligence, the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle of prevention of significant harm to the environment and the duty to protect and preserve the marine environment,

(a) What are the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases for States and for present and future generations;

(b) What are the legal consequences under these obligations for States where they, by their acts and omissions, have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, with respect to:

(i) States, including, in particular, small island developing States, which due to their geographical circumstances and level of development, are injured or specially affected by or are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change?

(ii) Peoples and individuals of the present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change?”

Additional developments:
On 25 April 2023, the President of the ICJ made an Order organizing the proceedings and fixing time limits for written submissions by States and international organisations in this case.

In June 2023, the Court authorized the European Union, the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to participate in the proceedings.

Further reading:

  • For more on Vanuatu’s original initiative, see here.
  • For a summary and analysis of the initiative, see the post on our blog by Pranav Ganesan.
  • For analysis by Maria Antonia Tigre and Jorge Alejandro Carrillo Bañuelos on the Sabin Center’s Climate Law Blog, see here.

Last updated:
6 July 2023.

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