UN General Assembly adopts historic consensus Resolution to seek an Advisory Opinion on Climate Change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ)

By: Neshan Gunasekera, Claudia Ituarte-Lima,

Welcome to our blog, the Human Righter. We shed light on contemporary human rights issues and comment on human rights developments. We dig deep into our focus areas within human rights, discuss SDGs and human rights. You will also find book reviews and analyses of new laws.

This blog post was written by Neshan Gunasekera, Research Fellow, Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

Young leaders from the Pacific Island States build a global movement and provides the impetus for this ICJAO Campaign!

“The law can be greatly advanced especially to suit the needs of the 21st century, when we are moving in the direction of being global citizens with common problems such as the environment, common aspirations for a peaceful world and a set of universally shared values” Judge Christopher Weeramantry, Vice-President, International Court of Justice (1997-2000) and Right Livelihood Laureate, (2007)

UN General Assembly Consensus Resolution on the the ICJ AO Campaign

On 29 March 2023 in New York, a historic Resolution was adopted by consensus at the United Nations General Assembly seeking from the International Court of Justice, the World Court, an Advisory Opinion on the question on Climate Change.

In 2021, a group of young leaders from the Pacific Island States decided to come together to build a campaign seeking a Resolution from the United Nations General Assembly which today has spurred young leaders across the world resulting in the World Youth for Climate Justice

A dream of a few, who dared to dream big at the beginning of this campaign, was realized at the highest Assembly in the world. Despite numerous challenges along the way, with guidance from an intergenerational group of leaders, and the leadership of the Vanuatu Government and a coalition of other co-sponsoring states, a consensus resolution was achieved.

The International Court of Justice, the Hague (the Peace Palace
Application of Principles of International Law and Human Rights Law

This Resolution builds on the momentum created by the recognition by the UN of a Human Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment last year and other developments related to human rights, covering both the International Bill of Human Rights and specific rights recognized under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on Biological Diversity,  rights of present and future generations, rights and duties recognized through the Stockholm Declaration, Rio Declaration, the Paris Agreement and key principles of international law, including customary international law.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volter Turk, issuing a comment soon after the adoption of the Resolution yesterday stated that “Today, it was adopted by consensus. I welcome the resolution’s clear recognition of the relevance of action today for the generations to come – people whose lives will be affected dramatically by what we do today, and what we fail to do”.

The Resolution seeks to clarify:

  1. ‘What are the obligations of States under International Law to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment form anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases for States and for present and future generations;
  2. What are the legal consequences under these obligations of States where they, by their acts and omissions, have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, which respect to:
    • 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?
    • Peoples and individuals of the present and future generations affected by the adverse effect of climate change?’

There are multiple climate litigation cases going on in various jurisdictions, at the national, regional, and global levels. Whilst each of them would allow the application and interpretation of some international legal principles, the ICJAO has a unique opportunity to apply such principles at a global level, thus influencing both the thinking and behaviour of States and all other duty-bearers as well as right-holdersengaged in global governance on this issue of vital importance to us and our planet. This will be the first time that the World Court will go into this matter providing a boon for the furtherance of key principles of international law, human rights law  including the rights of present and future generations, environmental law, climate law, biodiversity law to name a few.

“The transformative potential of the ICJAO lies both in its legal relevance and on the vibrant social movement behind this request to the highest international court. The fact that youth from the Pacific Islands spearheaded the World’s Youth for Climate Justice movement can contribute to a very needed changing narrative in which Global South youth are not framed only as victims of climate change and ecosystems’ degradation but also as agents of transformative societal change towards sustainability. The academic community, both from the Global South and Global North, has a historical opportunity to translate science (natural, social and interdisciplinary insights) into evidence that can be relevant for ICJAO.”  Dr Claudia Ituarte-Lima, Leader the RWI human rights and environment thematic area

Over a quarter of a century ago, in 1996, the ICJ delivered another significant Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the use by a State of nuclear weapons in armed-conflict. This case highlighted the importance of the law-science interface in deciding matters that have global consequences. The ICJAO on Climate Change will be another opportunity for furthering this important interface.

During the same time, the ICJ delivered another decision in the case of Gabchikovo-Nagymoros Project (Hungary v Slovakia, 1997), where the damming of the river Danube was brought into question. In its decision, the judges went into detail on the principles of sustainable development law. Particularly, through the much celebrated Separate Opinion of Judge Christopher Weeramantry, which firmly established sustainable development as key principles under international environmental law, which was ten years since the Brundtland Commission had coined this concept and almost two decades ahead of the United Nations adopting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Key international environmental law principles that received specific attention in this judgment were the principle of intergenerational equity and the principle of Trusteeship or stewardship – which was set out as the first principle of international environmental law in this Separate Opinion. This has inspired many generations of legal practitioners, scholars and students leading to inspired action, such as the launch of the Hague Principles for a Universal Declaration on Human Responsibilities and Earth Trusteeship at the Peace Palace, at the 70th Anniversary Celebrations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2018.

This is PISFCC in front of the UN in New York ahead of the Resolution being adopted yesterday in NY

The young leaders have drawn inspiration from these precedents already. These will be important considerations as the next phase of the campaign now begins.

This ICJAO on Climate Change may be considered as one of the most important cases to go before the International Court of Justice this Century. Also, this campaign illustrates the power of a small group of individuals, such as the young leaders from the Pacific supported by a committed group of States to challenge the status quo and attempt transformative change, which is the need of the hour. Intergenerational engagement has arrived once more at the doorsteps of the World Court.

It is an exciting time for all – the practitioner, the scholar, the student, and the enthusiasts supporting international law – to achieve a shift in our consciousness, built on our shared values! Utilizing the law to achieve such common aspirations, through an intergenerational effort!

Written by Neshan Gunasekera, Research Fellow, Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Laureate, Judge C.G. Weeramantry International Justice Award 2020

Research areas: Human Rights and the Environment, International Environmental Law, Ethics, Humanitarian Law.

Featured picture: The Pacific Island Student Fighting Climate Change and the World Youth for Climate Justice meets at the COP26 Glasgow, 2021

Share with your friends
Scroll to top