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ClientEarth Communications

15th March 2024

Environmental justice
Rule of law
Climate accountability
Asia & the Pacific

What is the Vanuatu ICJ initiative?

The Republic of Vanuatu is leading a group of states calling on the UN General Assembly to refer a request to the UN’s International Court of Justice, or ICJ. The request is for an ‘advisory opinion’ on what the legal obligations of countries all over the world are under international law when it comes to climate action. 

What is an advisory opinion?

An advisory opinion is a legal clarification is provided on points and questions of law to the UN or a specialised agency by an international court, in accordance with Article 96 of the UN Charter.

What advisory opinion is Vanuatu asking the ICJ for?

In March 2023, the UN General Assembly voted to ask the ICJ to clarify the obligations of States in relation to climate change, and the legal consequences if those obligations are not complied with. Put simply, States want to know what international courts have to say about what they are required to do about climate change.

The core group of States, i.e. Vanuatu, Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica, Sierra Leone, Angola, Germany, Mozambique, Liechtenstein, Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Singapore, Uganda, New Zealand, Vietnam, Romania and Portugal lead the drafting of the questions to the ICJ.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands
Why is this action being taken?

The scientific evidence is clear on how the climate crisis is already harming (and will continue to harm) human life and well-being. In early 2023 for example, Vanuatu faced two category four cyclones within 72 hours – unprecedented in history. States have duties under different international laws, like human rights law and the Law of the Sea, to reduce climate harms, and there are legal consequences for failing to do so.

The ICJ – the UN’s highest judicial organ has not yet been given the opportunity to address the climate crisis. 

What happens next?

All member States of the United Nations, as well as authorised intergovernmental organisations are able to provide written submissions to the Court. The first round of written submissions is due on 22 March 2024.  On 24 June 2024, a second round of submissions is due, and the hearing can be expected in late 2024 or early 2025.

What could a positive Advisory opinion mean for climate law?

This action could have major knock-on effects in terms of countries’ obligations around climate-harming emissions and human rights. It would open up the possibility that international climate commitments can be legally enforced.

Domestic and international courts are increasingly being asked to define the exact content of state obligations to prevent climate change. And as the impacts become clearer and come to bear more heavily on the most vulnerable, we are likely to see courts increasingly taking this into account.

How is ClientEarth involved?

We are currently in the process of finalising our briefing on Vanuatu’s ICJAO.

NGOs and civil society organisations aren’t able to provide formal submissions to the ICJ. But we have published an account of our opinions and shared this with the court. 

Read our full briefing here soon. 

More on international court actions