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Major milestone reached in historic climate judgement as States submit arguments to world’s highest court

Friday marked a significant milestone in the historic campaign to take climate change to the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as the deadline for State written submissions closes.

This moment follows on from the landmark resolution to seek an advisory opinion from the ICJ, adopted by consensus at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in March last year — hailed as a huge leap forward for global climate justice that would see human rights and intergenerational equity placed at the forefront of climate decision-making.

The climate justice advisory opinion promises to deliver unparalleled clarity on the international legal obligations countries bear in safeguarding people from the impacts of climate change. Since the resolution was adopted, States and international organisations around the world have spent months compiling their responses to the legal questions, gathering evidence and testimonies of climate harm as part of their written submissions to the Court.

Pacific States have been at the forefront of this process and significantly, all Pacific Island nations have made strong submissions to the Court in a strong show of unity. Civil society has also been central to organising not only the successful UNGA vote, but also ensuring that States engage constructively with the process to ensure the strongest possible legal opinion.

The final advisory opinion will be shaped by these written submissions, which detail harrowing testimonies from people across the Pacific and around the world, sharing how the climate crisis is impacting their communities, their livelihoods and their culture. Public hearings are expected to be held in The Hague later this year — the culmination of the campaign. These hearings provide a historic opportunity for the Court and the world to hear directly from those experiencing the impacts and harm posed by the climate emergency.

Vishal Prasad, Campaign Director at Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, said, “With written submissions now closing, we are one step closer to getting the legal clarity we need in our pursuit for climate justice. For many Pacific nations this is a historic moment as many countries have made submissions to the ICJ for the first time demonstrating immense leadership in the midst of significant challenges. These submissions are carrying our stories, experiences, and our hope and aspirations that the ICJ will listen and that the final opinion will be shaped by our voices.”

Ashawnté Russell, World’s Youth for Climate Justice, said, “As we transition between phases of this Advisory Opinion, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all States actively engaged in this critical endeavour. While global engagement remains essential, it’s equally imperative to amplify youth voices in shaping and implementing consistent climate policies.

“Young people across regions are fervently championing the cause of climate justice through our involvement in the written submissions, all the while recognising its profound significance for our collective future. Our participation in these proceedings symbolises not only the dawn of a new chapter, but also a deeply cherished privilege. As passionate advocates for sustainability, we urge our impassioned pleas to resonate within the chambers of the International Court of Justice, igniting decisive action and commitment for the well-being of all nations and generations to come.”

Katrina Bullock, General Counsel at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said, “As submissions from countries and international organisations flood the corridors of justice, today marks a pivotal moment in the journey towards an advisory opinion on human rights and climate change from the International Court of Justice. This watershed moment holds the potential to redefine the boundaries of international law, shaping our collective response to the existential threat of climate change.

“Greenpeace’s submission posits that all countries have an obligation under international law to prevent the adverse impacts of climate change and to respect, protect and fulfil the internationally recognised human rights of present and future generations in the face of climate change. We are extremely grateful to have worked on this submission with climate-impacted communities from the Pacific and around the world who, in their own words, tell the stories of climate harm and their resistance — that governments are unlikely to cover in their submissions.”

Dr Sindra Sharma, Senior Policy Advisor at Pacific Islands Climate Action Network said:

“The leadership shown by Pacific Island governments in making submissions to the ICJ shows their unwavering dedication to bridging generations in securing a livable future for not just the Pacific, but all people. Engagement in this phase of the process was crucial in ensuring that voices from our region, one of the most vulnerable to climate impacts, are heard throughout the proceedings.

Civil society participation in government submissions signals our commitment to working together to address the climate crisis, partnering to shape a legal framework that not only reflects our shared values but also ensures a sustainable future for generations to come.”

Nikki Reisch, Director of the Climate & Energy Program at the Center for International Environmental Law, said, “The International Court of Justice has both a unique opportunity and unparalleled authority to say what international law requires States to do, to stop doing, and to undo with respect to climate change and its devastating impacts. States have long-standing obligations under multiple sources of international law to prevent and minimise climate change, and to remedy its past and present harms. Under the Court’s own precedents, States that have contributed the most to fossil-fuelled emissions have a legal duty to cease their destructive conduct and repair harms for present and future generations.

“The ICJ’s legal pronouncements will have ripple effects around the world as domestic and regional courts facing a rising tide of climate litigation look for guidance, and as communities facing rising sea levels and temperatures look for remedy. As States, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society organisations submit their arguments today, we urge the Court to listen to the perspectives of those whose experiences of climate harm and resilience shed light on the meaning of climate duties and the pathway to climate justice.”

Mandi Mudarikwa, Head of Strategic Litigation at Amnesty International said, “The climate emergency is a human rights crisis of unprecedented proportions. When climate change-related impacts hit a country or a community, the knock-on effects can seriously undermine the enjoyment of the right to life lived in dignity, endanger a range of freedoms and socio-economic rights including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and in many cases even put at risk the cultural survival of entire peoples and future generations. Ultimately, the future of humanity is at stake.

“Through their participation in this process, state actors actively contribute to the progressive development of international law and standards, and ensure that the legacy that is to be inherited by future generations, is a legacy of collaboration that makes certain that the environment that they will live in, is governed by a legal regime that ensures its longevity and the enjoyment of human rights by all.”

This story was originally published at PICAN on 22 March 2024.

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