By Louella Losinio
In March, Vanuatu scored a significant win for vulnerable island nations facing the existential threat of climate change after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution seeking an advisory opinion from its principal judicial body, the International Court of Justice.
The ICJ has yet to release its opinion that would clarify and outline the countries’ obligations and responsibilities to address climate change.
Since 2019, Vanuatu spearheaded the global campaign, backed by the legal support of international human rights lawyer Julian Aguon and his firm, Blue Ocean Law.
According to Aguon, the campaign started as a youth-led movement at the University of the South Pacific, then gained momentum resulting in an expanded support network of 1,500 international civil society organizations spread out over 130 countries.
Aguon, who spoke at the University of Guam Conference on Island Sustainability in April, described the UNGA resolution as a significant victory and a diplomatic feat of herculean proportions on the part of the Vanuatu government. “Vanuatu may be a small country, but its emancipatory vision is huge. It demonstrates on the world stage a commitment, a solidarity and collective action,” he said.
The UN resolution emerged out of growing frustration over the inconsistencies between the global community’s rhetoric and action on climate change, amid escalating losses for countries such as Vanuatu. Essentially, the ICJ’s advisory will help establish whether there is a legal obligation for countries to do what they have committed to in non-binding treaties such as the 2015 Paris climate accord, and whether failure to do so will have legal consequences.
As a small island nation, Vanuatu is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on the face of the earth, Aguon said.
“Just last month, while we were all preparing for this vote in March, the country was fraught not only by a major earthquake but by two category four cyclones in two days, back-to-back. And the country is still reeling from the adverse impacts of two other category-five cyclones, Pam and Harold. It is just one example of increasingly severe storms that have severely impacted the republic. We were talking about storms that have wiped out 68 percent of the GDP in a day,” he said. “Vanuatu, like many Pacific Island nations, took a hard long look around and realized that the multilateral processes—government, the international climate change regime—was just wildly insufficient,” he added.
Vanuatu’s experience underscored the need to change the stakeholders’ approach to international climate change law, Aguon said. “It is time to finally stop working in silos—international climate change law people on the one side and human rights law people on the other side. It is time to listen to the growing global youth demand,” he said.
The author of “No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies” also emphasized the importance of bringing the stories of communities in the frontline of climate change to the ICJ.
Aguon also talked about Blue Ocean Law’s legal policy work on deep-sea mining, which he said has been called the “new global gold rush.”
Deep-sea mining involves the extraction of minerals from the ocean floor. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea based in Kingston, Jamaica.
According to the UN, its primary function is “to regulate exploration for and exploitation of deep seabed minerals found in 'the area,' which is defined by the convention as the seabed and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, that is, beyond the outer limits of the continental shelf.”
“Right now, even in 2023, ISA is prepped to greenlight this new extractive industry this year. We are talking of in a matter of two months,” Aguon said.
In 2021, Lionel Aingimea, then Nauru president, invoked a clause in the convention that covers the immediate adoption of a set of regulations for the extractive industry following the submission of a proposal from an interested party.
Aguon is calling for a moratorium on the industry. “Out of an abundance of caution, I am on the side of stopping it,” he said. “The reason why this is our entry point into climate change is because so many of these microorganisms living at the bottom of the sea sequester methane. So, to release that would be a doomsday climactic event.”
Aguon also shared the experience of indigenous communities within the proximity of potential deep-sea mining sites. “When we heard the stories, we were on it. We had to do what we do at Blue Ocean Law to reach for the vocabulary of international human rights law, which is to protect indigenous communities from the adverse effects of certain industries, like this emerging extractive industry,” he said.