New Zealand is formally supporting Vanuatu’s quest to clarify international legal obligations of countries to preserve human rights in the face of climate change, Marc Daalder reports

New Zealand is one of 11 nations helping Vanuatu draft a question to the International Court of Justice on the intersection between human rights, climate change and the rights of future generations.

The bid will go to the United Nations General Assembly first. If approved there, the court will be asked to produce a non-binding advisory opinion “on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change”, according to the initiative’s webpage.

More than 80 countries have backed the call, including New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the Pacific Island Forum in July. Only a handful are part of the “core” group of nations announced on Thursday – and New Zealand is also among these.

“For too long we have waited for global leaders to take decisive action on climate change. To put words and treaties in to action. To fully implement the Paris Agreement. To protect our children and grandchildren. We can no longer afford to wait,” Vanuatu’s Special Envoy on Climate Change Bakoa Kaltongga said.

“We are asking the ICJ to clarify the legal consequences, based on existing international treaties and principles, for significantly harming the climate system – particularly in small island and developing states and other developing nations which are already experiencing devastating climate impacts.”

Vishal Prasad, of the Pacific Island student activist group that kickstarted the campaign, said the support from countries beyond the Pacific showed climate impacts are mounting everywhere.

“This campaign began in a small South Pacific University classroom in Vanuatu, a nation on the frontline of the climate crisis where our human rights are under threat,” he said.

“This experience is not limited to the Pacific, with hundreds of millions of people around the world having their human rights impacted by climate change. Today’s announcement that these 12 countries are standing shoulder to shoulder in championing the bid for an ICJ advisory opinion is testament not only to the global impact of the campaign, but in our increasingly unified response to a shared experience.”

Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Newsroom he was “feeling pretty confident” the UN General Assembly would support the initiative when it goes to a vote.

The wording is yet to be finalised and Shaw said this was because diplomats were trying to strike a balance between conveying the urgency and seriousness of the situation while also ensuring it gets the approval of a majority of countries.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show officials were concerned even in June, prior to the Pacific Islands Forum, about navigating this nuance.

“To ensure any ICJ output delivers maximum positive impact in terms of lifting collective ambition on climate change, and does not exacerbate existing UNFCCC fracture lines and sensitivities, the specific question put to the ICJ (which Vanuatu has not yet finalised) will need to be framed carefully,” they wrote.

Shaw echoed this in his comments to Newsroom.

“We want it to succeed. The advice that we’re providing as one of the countries that are supporting the bid is to offer our view about what we think is most likely to succeed,” he said. “It’s got to pass a General Assembly vote, right?”

Mary Moeono-Kolio, the Wellington coordinator for Pacific Climate Warriors, said it was good to see New Zealand backing the initiative.

“It’s critical. New Zealand wields significant influence within the region and to stand in solidarity with Pacific nations like Vanuatu is critical to getting the ICJ advisory opinion across the line. It also sends a real clear signal around the world’s moral obligation to address climate change as a human rights issue,” she said.

“It’s a first step in New Zealand showing true climate leadership.”

Across the Tasman, environmental groups have criticised the Australian government for its absence from the core group of nations behind the bid.

“It is incredibly disappointing that Australia has not stepped up on the global stage and joined its peers to champion this Pacific-led campaign for climate justice at the UN General Assembly,” Sepesa Rasili of Greenpeace Australia said.

The other 10 members of the “core” group are Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica, Germany, Liechtenstein, Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Uganda, New Zealand and Vietnam.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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