The United Nations General Assembly overnight adopted a Vanuatu-led resolution calling for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), aiming to clarify what the obligations of states are in protecting the rights of current and future generations from the adverse effects of climate change.
The resolution was tabled by Vanuatu and a core group of 17 countries, including New Zealand which helped draft the resolution. In the end, it was sponsored by more than 130 countries.
The ICJ will prepare an advisory opinion that could be cited in climate court cases, which Shaw said had the potential to “change the landscape”.
“It does give more power to the small island states and will enter other small states, because it just helps to build the international rule of law around this.”
He said implications for New Zealand would not be known until the ICJ delivered its findings, but it was clear the world needed to “lift our game”.
“We’ve got to deliver on the commitments that we’ve already made and collectively . . . make stronger commitments.”
New Zealand was a co-sponsor of this initiative when Vanuatu took it to international climate change negotiations in December.
Shaw said he was pleased to support Vanuatu because not every country has the ability or resources to go to forums like that and be heard.
Vanuatu is one of the most vulnerable nations to the impacts of climate change. This month two Category 4 tropical cyclones hit the country in less than five days.
The damage is estimated to cost Vanuatu more than half of its annual gross domestic product.
“Like New Zealand, Vanuatu has been hit by devastating cyclones and storms this year,” Shaw said.
“For all our sakes, we must cut climate pollution so things don’t get even worse.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta is currently in Vanuatu and said New Zealand was “proud to support” Vanuatu on the matter.
Last night Mahuta joined locals and representatives of other governments at a concert to mark the UN decision.
“Climate change is a critical area of New Zealand’s co-operation with Vanuatu,” Mahuta said.
“Our partnership with Vanuatu is built on whanaungatanga [close connections], painga kotahi [mutual benefit] and friendship,” Mahuta said.
“Amplifying the Pacific voice and the impact of climate change on Pacific peoples is a key priority for New Zealand.”
Mahuta today announced more than $30 million in aid for Vanuatu, including for a Pacific Insurance and Climate Adaptation Programme and for clean drinking-water projects.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau called the UN decision a “win for climate justice of epic proportions”.
“Vanuatu sees today’s historic resolution as the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate co-operation, one that is more fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and an era that places human rights and inter-generational equity at the forefront of climate decision-making,” Kaisakau said.
“The very fact that a small Pacific island nation like Vanuatu was able to successfully spearhead such a transformative outcome speaks to the incredible support from all corners of the globe.”
Youth groups played a key role in the campaign, including Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change.
Spokesman Solomon Yeo said the win followed four years of “arduous work in convincing our leaders and raising global awareness on the initiative”.
“This further solidifies why young people’s voices must remain an integral part of the process. Now the first stage is over, we look to join hand in hand with governments and partners in bringing the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court.”
Oxfam Aotearoa’s climate justice lead, Nick Henry, said the last comparable opinion was in 1996, when the ICJ issued an advisory opinion on nuclear weapons that was critical to nuclear disarmament and keeping the Pacific nuclear-free.
“A strong opinion from the ICJ would help to hold governments to account on their obligations to act.”
Mahuta today met with Vanuatu Foreign Minister Jotham Napat in Port Vila, Vanuatu, signing the Mauri Statement of Partnership – Aotearoa New Zealand’s first such partnership statement with Vanuatu.
The visit closely follows the devastation caused by Cyclones Judy and Kevin. Resilience to the impacts of climate change was top of the agenda.
In addition to the specific climate change funding, Aotearoa New Zealand is allocating $3m in general budget support to Vanuatu, and $4m to support the recovery of the Vanuatu tourism sector, with the aim of growing sustainable tourism after the Covid-19 pandemic.