An initiative that began as an extracurricular exercise in a USP law class in 2019 has succeeded in making an extraordinary journey to the United Nations General Assembly, and will soon result in the International Court of Justice determining legal issues of climate change for the first time.
On 29 March, the UN General Assembly will adopt a resolution requesting the International Court of Justice – the World’s Highest Court – to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of States under international law with respect to climate change, human rights, and intergenerational equity. The resolution is co-sponsored by 120 States which is almost two-thirds of UN Members. More than 220 civil society organisations have also written to all UN Member States urging them to support it.
The idea was first conceived by a group of USP students during a ‘learning-by-doing’ exercise in USP’s International Environmental Law course.
“Our professor challenged us to research the most progressive and ambitious climate change action that Pacific Island Leaders could initiate in international legal processes, and once we had chosen it, to lobby our leaders to take it forward,” said Cynthia Houniuhi, one of the original class members who is now President of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC) and a Master of Laws student at the University of NSW.
When the 2019 Pacific Island Forum (PIF) Leaders only ‘noted’ the proposal, the students didn’t give up, but instead formed an organisation – Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change PISFCC – to start what soon became a global youth campaign for an ICJ climate change opinion.
“An opinion from the International Court of Justice on climate change will have far-reaching impacts on policies and court decisions all around the world”, said Dr Morsen Mosses, Senior Lecturer in Public International Law and International Human Rights Law at USP’s Emalus Campus in Vanuatu. “It will mean that the full suite of international laws, including the human rights covenants and principles of customary international law, are brought squarely into play in determining how States must implement their commitments under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.”
“We weren’t satisfied with having the 2019 PIF just ‘noting’ our proposal”, said Solomon Yeo, another original class member and PISFCC’s Campaign Director. “It is something that we truly believed is worth fighting for, so we kept on fighting. The pandemic ruined our plans for a while but we didn’t let that stop us – during lockdowns we started a network called World’s Youth for Climate Justice which spread the campaign to all continents and regions.” Solomon Yeo is currently in New York assisting the Vanuatu UN Mission with the final stages of the campaign and witnessing the resolution being adopted at the UNGA.
“The students have been amazing, I have to keep pinching myself in case it’s a dream”, said Dr Justin Rose, Adjunct Associate Professor of Law and coordinator of the 2019 class where the campaign originated. “The original aim was just to help the keenest class members realise that learning about law doesn’t need to be dull or abstract, but it is rather a tool that, when combined with hard work and knowledge, gives you the power to push for the change you want in the world.”
“Getting the UNGA resolution is a big step, but it is really just the beginning”, said Lani Lavemai, PISFCC founding Vice President and Tonga-based member. “After this, we will begin lobbying all governments to participate in the ICJ proceedings, and to ensure they include youth perspectives and voices in their submissions.”
“We are enormously proud of everything our alumni at PISFCC have achieved”, said USP Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
“These are exactly the kind of high-achieving publicly-minded graduates that we aim to produce.”