In light of a group of 16 countries, led by Vanuatu, approaching the International Court of Justice to seek a clarification of state obligations with regards to climate action, comment on the significance of the initiatives being taken by this small Pacific island nation. What is the way ahead?


In order to define the rights and duties of states under international law in respect to the negative impacts of climate change, a core group of 16 nations, led by Vanuatu, will present a draft law before the general assembly in December.


  • Without substantial progress at the next COP27 climate conference in Egypt, the initiative by Vanuatu could usher in a wave of international climate litigation. 
  • Support for Vanuatu is expanding and just a simple majority of members who are present and voting is required. If successful, the ICJ will take over and resolve this complicated legal matter.
  • The advice would not be legally binding. However, it will still carry a great deal of moral and legal weight.
  • Even if the voting happens after COP27, Vanuatu’s plan may have an impact on talks in Egypt.


  • The least responsible for climate change are low-income island nations like Vanuatu, but they collectively suffer its most severe effects. Sea-level rise poses an existential danger to low-lying atolls in particular; by the end of the century, several Pacific states will be fully submerged. States asking the ICJ for clarification is therefore not surprising.
  • Vanuatu has led the way in using international tribunals, but others may follow.
  • A method to pay nations impacted by sea level rise was initially demanded by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in 1991. However, wealthy nations have consistently resisted attempts to bring up loss and harm during discussions. 
  • Last year, during COP26 in Glasgow, AOSIS advocated for a new fund to cover loss and damage, which was strongly opposed by the US and EU. 
  • Climate catastrophe response costs in developing nations might reach billions of dollars by 2050, and wealthier countries will wish to avoid any legally enforceable commitment to fund these costs using public resources.

Way forward:

Vanuatu’s proposal acknowledges the failings of the climate change discussions while illustrating the distinctive ways that tiny island developing governments may wield influence. The recognition by the country’s president that the ICJ is “the only principal organ of the UN system that has not yet been given an opportunity to help address the climate crisis” is extremely insightful.


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