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‘We are very vulnerable’: cyclone-hit Vanuatu pins climate hopes on UN vote

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Pacific nation is sponsoring resolution that will ask ICJ to rule on consequences for climate inaction

A boy walks through through the ruins of his family home in Port Vila, Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam devastated the town in 2015. The Pacific country has co-sponsored a resolution on climate obligations at the UN. Photograph: Getty Images

Last month, twin cyclones tore through Port Vila, the capital of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The category-four storms left corrugated iron roofs crumpled like leftover wrapping paper, flooded the streets with waste-ridden mud, cut residents off from water and electricity for several days, and sent many fleeing to hastily established evacuation centres.

Devastation of this sort is becoming more common throughout the Pacific, where rising sea levels are leaving shorelines increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather made more intense by climate change.

It is partly because of such crises that Vanuatu has introduced a resolution to the UN, co-sponsored by more than 100 other nations and set to be voted on this week, calling for the international court of justice (ICJ) to set out for the first time the obligations states have under international law to fight climate change, and specify any consequences they should face for inaction.

The resolution emerged out of frustration with the mismatch between the global community’s rhetoric and action on climate change, which routinely left Pacific activists and diplomats feeling “very disillusioned and disappointed”, says Kevin Chand, the legal adviser to Vanuatu’s mission to the United Nations. The global community “has been making progress, but it isn’t making progress fast enough when we in the Pacific are very vulnerable to climatic events”.

Advisory opinions by the ICJ are not binding on domestic courts. By establishing international legal rules, however, they can be influential sources of pressure on judges and governments. Vanuatu hopes an advisory opinion that sets out stricter climate obligations would strengthen climate-related lawsuits around the world and empower vulnerable nations in international climate negotiations.

Vanuatu already appears to have won majority support for its proposal, which is scheduled for a vote in the UN general assembly on Wednesday; 117 nations are co-sponsoring the draft resolution.

The campaign to secure an advisory opinion began four years ago in a classroom at the Fijian campus of the University of the South Pacific, where several law students were debating how best to draw the plight of their Pacific homelands to global attention. After striking upon the idea of an advisory opinion, they began lobbying their governments to support it.

Previous attempts by the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Bangladesh to seek an advisory opinion had stalled. But Pacific nations soon took up the law students’ call. They gradually won support from other small nations in Africa and the Caribbean, then secured the backing of more ambitious developed nations.

Vanuatu avoided singling out individual countries in its request to the ICJ, which has helped it draw support from large emitters like the UK and Australia. Other influential nations like the US and China have not yet expressed a public opinion on the proposal, but one person involved in the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity says both countries have indicated they would support it.

The person believes that Vanuatu’s campaign had been aided by the Pacific’s growing geostrategic prominence as the US and China compete for influence in the region. “Politics in the Pacific is very charged at the moment. It’s worked in our favour because it means that we have some leverage,” they say. “It gives us some opportunity to make moves like this because the big players don’t want to offend the Pacific Islands.”

Meanwhile, as these international debates play out, several thousand people in Vanuatu are still living in evacuation centres after the damage wreaked across their country by the twin cyclones. For them, advocates say, an advisory opinion strengthening the obligations on large emitters cannot come soon enough.

“Extreme weather events are becoming the new normal in our country as a result of climate change,” says Odo Tevi, Vanuatu’s ambassador to the UN. “For low-lying countries, it’s an existential threat.” Accordingly, says Tevi, “We need the global community to act.”

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South Pacific Countries

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