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Q&A: Behind the push to bring the climate crisis to court

‘If we can do something, then I’m in.’

Two residents of Emao Island in Vanuatu strengthen their houses with cement to prepare for cyclones Felie Zernack/TNH
Two residents of Emao Island in Vanuatu strengthen their houses with cement to prepare for cyclones. Few in the community can afford the material to fortify their homes.

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For diplomat Georges Maniuri, the front line of the climate crisis cuts across a tiny island in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

Beset by rising seas, sudden floods, and powerful storms, his entire village of about 150 people, on the island of Makira, is debating packing up and moving to higher ground.

It’s a last-chance strategy to cope when all else has failed. But Maniuri also has a rare opportunity to push back in other ways: He’s part of a team of diplomats and campaigners trying to bring the climate emergency to the UN’s top court.

Vanuatu wants the International Court of Justice to issue legal advice, known as an advisory opinion, clarifying state responsibility for acting on climate change. It intends to table a resolution this month at the UN General Assembly, which is one of the few bodies able to ask for advisory opinions. 

Demands for climate justice are mounting as November’s COP27 climate summit nears. The ICJ push is one example of how vulnerable communities frustrated by years of global inaction are finding other ways to press their cases.

An ICJ decision in Vanuatu’s favour could set a legal precedent that may be used in any court – a potentially powerful tool for the growing number of plaintiffs using legal levers to try and hold big polluters (and big countries) to account.

At some point in time, we – the community, the chief, and the population – will have to seriously consider moving.

A team of campaigners and diplomats like Maniuri have spent months trying to galvanise broad support (and co-sponsors) behind the scenes from an array of different actors: ambassadors and other diplomatic missions, Pacific countries with similar concerns, regional blocs, and global alliances.

Maniuri, Vanuatu’s ambassador to the EU, was tasked with lobbying his counterparts at the Organisation of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (and its 79 member states). The bloc threw its support behind Vanuatu in June.

Now, the campaign is set to reach the halls of the General Assembly in New York. Maniuri said Vanuatu plans to table its resolution at the UNGA by the end of October. A vote may come early in 2023.

Maniuri spoke to The New Humanitarian about the lengthy process of building support, why Vanuatu is aiming for consensus rather than finger-pointing, and his very personal reasons for doing this work.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: How would you describe what climate change means to Vanuatu?

I come from a small island, by the name of Makira, in the Shepherds group. Before, we never experienced floods. We have experienced cyclones. But since three years now, we also have floods. We have heavy rains during a very short period of time. The consequences to the crops, the gardens, are very devastating. When there is such a flood, it just washes out everything – even the gardens that have just been put in place, and even the houses.

In some of these islands, it’s very hilly. For example, in a neighbouring island, Emae, recently there was a landslide carrying out the whole village. Luckily there were not heavy casualties, but I understand there were two or three children that lost their lives.

With heavy rain coming all the time, the soil is all watery and the landslide comes easily. The more we have floods, it washes everything to the sea. And that’s also a problem: Seafood will no longer be able to survive in that environment where we have the debris coming from the land.

On the land that used to produce very good root crops, [the harvest] now seems to be very small. There’s also a common plant we use to bake food in underground ovens. Those leaves seem to be no longer in good supply. I think that’s all part of this issue, that some are more [vulnerable]. We can see it easily. And others are now slowly being affected. 

The New Humanitarian: These are very visible impacts on everyday life. What are people doing to cope?

Just imagine a Category 5 cyclone – the sea washes out the village. It’s been some years now that the village community has been discussing about relocating uphill. Where the village is now located seems to be no longer safe. At some point in time, we – the community, the chief, and the population – will have to seriously consider moving to the upper land to avoid being washed away.

The New Humanitarian: You’re talking about your own home on Makira: the village where you’re from is considering moving?

Yes, exactly.

The New Humanitarian: Vanuatu has a whole team of people like you trying to negotiate behind the scenes, to lobby your counterparts, other ambassadors, other missions, to really support this plan to bring the issue of climate change before the International Court of Justice. What’s the message you’re telling people in your lobbying?

It is about human rights. We believe that the issue of climate change, while we have the Paris declaration and commitments, and all the other international conventions, it seems the engagement is not there. More and more, we see all these consequences of climate change taking away lives of the most vulnerable, whether it is in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, Pakistan or even Bangladesh, South America. We all see that lives are being lost due to climate change, simply because not enough attention is being provided to ensure that proper measures are put in place to ensure the gas emissions are reduced.

The New Humanitarian: Seeking an advisory opinion at the ICJ is a fairly technical thing. How would you describe the overall goals: What is it you hope to achieve by bringing this issue to the ICJ?

An advisory opinion from the ICJ is not binding. But at least we believe, as the highest court under the UN system, it may provide clarity and provide some benchmarks within the international legal framework, to ensure that countries may feel comfortable in taking decisions or measures that are in compliance with international conventions.

Because when there is uncertainty, every country can interpret something to its own liking to suit its own interest. Then we no longer have clarity and certainty within the legal framework.

The New Humanitarian: What’s the bigger picture here? What would such a decision tell the world? What might it tell the mainly northern nations who are most responsible for climate damages?

We believe that the advisory opinion would send a clear signal, and that would apply to all countries – not only countries from the [Global] North, countries that from our side are the [biggest] polluters, but also to countries from the [Global] South – to take measures to ensure emissions are limited to what is under the Paris agreement: 1.5 degrees Celsius. The ICJ can bring clarity for all states, whether small or big, from the North or the South. 

The New Humanitarian: Yet when we’re talking about climate change, we know who is most responsible. I’m thinking of the years of discussions of loss and damage at COP summits, where there has been fairly little progress. How closely is this tied to the slow progress on loss and damage?

First, what we are seeking from the ICJ is that there will be no finger-pointing or shaming. But what we are aiming at is to have something that would bring all countries to come to the same understanding.

In terms of loss and damage: Yes, that would be something that will come up, certainly, at some point in time. But we are not seeking something on that front. What we are mainly seeking is to provide clarity in terms of states’ obligations under international law. If that is clarified, then that is the main goal.

The New Humanitarian: At the same time, such clarity would open opportunities for interested parties to press states who are not meeting their obligations under international law. So it does lead somewhere – to giving another lever for pressing polluters to fulfil their obligations.

If the International Court of Justice provides an advisory opinion that goes along with what we are seeking, definitely, we believe that there may be a number of interested stakeholders [who] would take that decision – the advisory opinion – and maybe would like to explore some other avenues that can be a benefit to them. But I believe that our primary goal is to have that clarity in terms of the legal framework.

The New Humanitarian: Why do you choose to work on this issue? Why does it hold such importance to you, personally?

You know, I have had the opportunity to study in Europe, where life is not that difficult. I decided to go back home. I decided to go back to Vanuatu, a small country with no major infrastructure, because I believe that it is [about] the people.

We grew up in a very small country, a poor country, where we almost know everybody. It is that communal link. I believe when you see members of your family suffering, whether close or far, you feel that there must be something that must be done. It is not possible to be at the mercy of extreme weather events or climate change, and then we just go along, we go along.

So, I believe that when we talk about some of the neighbouring countries – Kiribati, Tuvalu, or even in Vanuatu – with sea-level rise, then those countries would no longer be. It is inconceivable: If things are not addressed, Tuvalu, Kiribati, would be completely under sea. We have families from Tuvalu and Kiribati, so I believe that it is the Pacific family that is there. Vanuatu is only spearheading, but we have the support of the full Pacific family with us.

So, I believe it is quite personal, the issue of climate change. We just cannot leave it. If we can do something, then I’m in. I’m in.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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