Pacific youth action leads to UN resolution on climate change

On 29 March the UN General Assembly passed a resolution put forward by Vanuatu to provide an advisory opinion on UN member states obligations in protecting the rights of current and future generations from the adverse effects of climate change.

Professor Edvard Hviding (centre) from the University of Bergen with Vanuatu’s UN Ambassador Odo Tevi (right) and Solomon Yeo (left) from the activist organisation Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change.
CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE: Professor Edvard Hviding (centre) from the University of Bergen with Vanuatu’s UN Ambassador Odo Tevi (right) and Solomon Yeo (left) from the activist organisation Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change.

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The small Pacific island state of Vanuatu has been the driving force behind developing a resolution requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide an advisory opinion on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change. The resolution, for which Vanuatu had gathered the support of no less than 133 of the United Nations’ (UN) 193 member states, was passed with unanimous consensus in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 29 March 2023. On the sidelines of the UN 2023 Water Conference, anthropologist Edvard Hviding from the University of Bergen (UiB) met with Vanuatu’s UN Mission, only days before the resolution was tabled at the General Assembly.

In an unassuming office a few blocks away from the UN building sit the offices of a number of small Commonwealth associated UN missions of Pacific ad Caribbean countries, including the one of Vanuatu. Lately, this small island state has been creating headlines due to its engagement to rally the support of a majority of the world’s states to bring climate change and its consequences to the consideration of the ICJ in the Hague, the Netherlands.

Professor Hviding has carried out years of field research in the Pacific, mainly in Solomon Islands. In more recent years the anthropologist has turned his attention to the Pacific Islands as a global frontline of climate change and has shifted his research focus to Pacific efforts on diplomatic scenes where ocean and climate are at stake. In this Hviding has engaged deeply in science diplomacy, both at the UN and in the Pacific region, and he has represented Pacific states as an advisor in negotiations at the UN. Funded by the Research Council of Norway, Hviding’s innovative and transdisciplinary Island Lives, Ocean States project is at the cutting edge of global science diplomacy.

Visiting New York as part of UiB’s delegation for the UN 2023 Water Conference, Hviding also was in close dialogue with Vanuatu’s UN mission and Ambassador Odo Tevi about the upcoming climate change resolution, which has just now been adopted by consensus at the UNGA.

“This is quite an unprecedented achievement for a small island state, which in fact started among law students at the University of the South Pacific (USP),” Hviding notes excitedly when greeting Vanuatu’s Ambassador Tevi and young Solomon Islander and legal scholar Solomon Yeo from the activist organisation Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, and one of the initiators of the campaign leading to the UN resolution ultimately tabled by Vanuatu on 29 March 2023.

“In 2019 I was doing my final year of law studies at USP,” says Yeo, referring to one of the two regional universities in the world, the other one being the University of the West Indies. Both universities are close partners of the University of Bergen.

“Many of us law students enrolled for the course International Environmental Law. From this class we learned about the concepts of climate change and human rights, and there being a nexus between them,” Yeo says, “never before had it been put so clearly to us how climate change impacts on basic human rights in the Pacific.”

Through the course, Yeo and his fellow students learned a lot about what he describes as the “climate change regime” and its ineffectiveness.

“So, we decided to do something and rather than going for the lowest hanging fruit, we aimed for the most ambitious one: getting a legal solution for climate change,” he says.

Of course, at this time there was already the Paris Agreement on climate change. But the young activists believed they could not rely only on that framework anymore, given the lack of action they observed on the international scene. They believed the timing was right to challenge the world’s international courts on climate change, by having the ICJ give an advisory opinion.

“We wrote letters to the governments of all Pacific nations. Vanuatu sent the most compelling response and would consider this further. So, we put together a team and thought it was going to be just another long, long process,” Yeo says.

Vanuatu then took the vision to the Pacific Islands Forum, whose leaders noted it without officially endorsing, after which the initiative was moved by Vanuatu to the UN scene. Uncertain about how this would end, the USP students formed Pacific Students Fighting Climate Change, with Yeo as one of the founding members. He was born and raised in the Solomon Islands after his parents came as missionaries to the islands in the 1990s.

“We’ve had consistent support from Vanuatu,” says the young law activist, “but it’s not been easy. In the beginning we suffered lots of setbacks. And some backlash from people who didn’t believe in our vision, thinking it was unrealistic to gain the necessary global support.”

The key to understanding the UN resolution tabled by Vanuatu is the connection between human rights and intergenerational equity, where the climate justice aspect has been missing for too long. This gives clarity to loss and damage, yet at the same time making sure the Paris Agreement works. This vision has now been reflected in the UN resolution.

“We are putting complex issues forward, clarifying a question relating to international law,” says Yeo. “We are taking what is already existing in international law. It’s like a fridge. What’s in the fridge? Nothing new. Not creating new laws or arguments. Just taking what is already there and putting it to use.”

If you open the fridge of climate change, there are a lot of relevant ingredients in international law already.

“The main function is to clarify the grey areas. Just interpreting the existing laws. It’s a tapestry of legal instruments, which has been highlighted in the resolution. These are mainly applicable treaties at UN levels, including civil and human rights, economic and culture rights, the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement, and more,” says Yeo.

By this time, Ambassador Tevi is eager to chip in with his thoughts on the process leading to the now adopted General Assembly resolution. How did he gain the support of more than 130 UN member states co-sponsoring the motion?

“First, my government asked me to lead the diplomatic campaign towards a resolution. I decided to talk to my ambassador colleagues and friends first. Some of them may not support it, but they can offer useful suggestions,” says the Vanuatu ambassador. “I asked many countries about their views, and some of them were supportive, and some were sitting on the fence, because this is a huge resolution. Some were confused and pointed out that we already have the Paris Agreement.”

“Those countries were the low hanging fruits. They were accepting when I approached them. I came up with a list of countries and formed a core group of 18 countries. We decided that the core group should consist of countries from all different geographical regions: Europe, Africa, Asia, Pacific, Latin America, Caribbean, and so forth,” he says.

“We were working on the draft resolution with our international lawyers, going back and forth trying to find a balance. That’s one level, with the core group. The other layer is the civil society, they are important but outside of my control. The youth were playing a very important role.”

One of the efforts by the youth activists and civil society was creating a toolbox: How to get your country on board? This proved to be a very efficient strategy in rallying support.

“In the core group, we made the core group members of each geographical region do the outreach with their fellow countries,” says the Vanuatu ambassador, who formed the core group right after the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow in the autumn of 2021.

“From then I knew that my mission would be to deal with this project,” he said about taking the lead role in this campaign for climate justice, which he believes is clearly the highlight of his nine years as a UN ambassador.

Surprisingly, considering the pitfalls of international negotiations and its nature of compromise, the basic text of what became the resolution has stood firm. Despite a lot of tweaking, the thrust of the resolution’s key questions remains.

“Then we saw country after country joining us. One of the reasons for this was the youth groups, who grabbed everyone’s attention with their knowledge and enthusiasm,” says the ambassador. “The other thing is that people see Vanuatu as a country that is no threat to the global order and thus it’s easier to support a motion tabled by us. Nobody wants to go against the Pacific Island states. Everybody wants friends, and our observation is that many states wanted to be seen as supportive of this initiative driven by Vanuatu.”

Tevi continues: “I approached Norway’s UN ambassador, and Norway is the friend of small states. I knew they would eventually join. In Europe, we began with Germany and Portugal. A lot of European countries were looking to Germany and so it accelerated.”

“The other dimension is the resolution’s inclusive nature. When taking it to the UN, we assembled member states for three informal sessions. Countries felt they became part of it. We didn’t incorporate all the views given, but we took them into consideration,” he explains.

Gradually support from the UN member states rose. When the resolution came out as a complete text it was like a “wildfire” Tevi notes, referring to the entire process as a good story of teamwork involving the core group, youth, civil society, and others.

Ambassador Tevi and student activist Yeo agree that this resolution is a true landmark achievement for the small states of the world.

So, what happens now that the resolution was passed by UNGA?

“The UN Secretary-General (UNSG) and his legal team will work on it and write a letter to the ICJ and notify them about the adoption of the resolution. And the ICJ will look at it after receiving it. The ICJ has its own processes. They must take it when it comes from the UNSG. They’ve never refused anything like this. They are at the service of the UNSG,” note the ambassador and the young law activist.

“When the call to action comes, once the resolution is passed, it’s important that all UN agencies, and in particular future-generation relevant agencies like UNICEF, make contributions to the court, and special rapporteurs on climate change as well,” says Vanuatu’s UN Ambassador.