Press Conference on Request for International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on Climate Change

3 February 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Request for International Court of Justice


Advisory Opinion on Climate Change


An advisory opinion on damages from climate change by the International Court of Justice, proposed by small island States and others, would complement and not conflict with efforts to create a negotiated international climate regime, the President of Palau said this afternoon.

“While we continue to negotiate, we should renew our faith in a system of law that has guided States’ actions in the past and gives them legitimacy today,” President Johnson Toribiong told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference which followed a meeting last night with the Prime Minister of Grenada, the other principal in an initiative President Toribiong launched in his statement to the opening of the General Assembly in September.

Joining President Toribiong today were Stuart Beck, Palau’s Permanent Representative and Dessima Williams, Grenada’s Permanent Representative.  Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, moderated the session.

In his September statement, President Toribiong had asked the Assembly, which can refer matters to the Court, to “seek, on an urgent basis […] an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the responsibilities of States under international law to ensure that activities carried out under their jurisdiction or control that emit greenhouse gases do not damage other States.”

President Toribiong made clear today, however, that he wanted consensus on the exact question that would be put to the Court, as it was a valuable way to work together to find a shared solution to the impact of climate change, which affected the entire world.  “The rule of law must reflect the interests of the entire international community,” he said.

In the past few months, a critical core group of Member States, most prominently including small island States from diverse regions, had come together to formulate a preliminary draft of the question.  A high-level advisory panel for that effort included Robert Post, Dean of the Yale Law School; Professor Shinya Murase, a Japanese expert on transborder legal issues; Michael B. Gerrard, Director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law; and Satya Nandan, Minister of State of Fiji, an important figure in Law of the Sea issues.

A shared legal discussion was needed now, Persident Toribiong said, since 20 years of climate-change negotiations had shown that every State saw the phenomenon differently — as an economic problem, or an issue of geopolitics.  “For us, it’s about survival.”  The International Court of Justice process would raise awareness of that reality, in addition to providing guidance to the negotiation track.

Already, roads were unusable and staple crops were threatened in Palau and other Pacific nations because of the rising sea waters, Mr. Beck said.  The waters had risen two or three times higher in Palau’s region than anywhere else in the world.  The country had targeted the use of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020, but that would not save them.  “We need everyone to buy in or it won’t work,” President Toribiong said.  “An [International Court of Justice] advisory opinion would give us the guidance we need on what all States must do,” he added.

In response to questions, the panellists said that, so far, the initiative had received measured support, with some Member States expressing concern over interference with the negotiation process.  Mr. Beck noted that the drive to consider the problem from the angle of international peace and security, at the Security Council, had succeeded.  Ms. Williams said that clarification had been requested by many delegations, including that of the United States.  Clarification would continue through bilaterals and other means.  She stressed that such initiatives always start with a small core and the hope was that others join, if it was credible.  “It is credible, it is legitimate and it is moving,” she said of the International Court of Justice initiative.

Ms. Williams also stressed that it was not their intension to focus blame on major emitters of greenhouse gases.  It was to recommit themselves to urgency by having normative standards for all established around climate change, to complement the work under the Assembly and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  “You can’t drive on a highway unless there were signs saying how fast you can go,” Mr. Beck added, stressing the need for legal signposts for the way ahead on climate change.

In response to questions about the different awareness of climate change in different countries, Mr. Beck again described the effects already seen in Palau and said: “That’s not happening in Manhattan.”  The panel stressed however, that the changes in the Pacific would accelerate climate change’s “cascading effect” all over the world.  “We’re engaged in an epic battle to save planet Earth,” President Toribiong concluded.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.