Image: © UNICEF/Rebecca Olul Emergency supplies are delivered to people at an evacuation centre in Shefa Province in Vanuatu after Tropical cyclones Kevin and Judy left a trail of destruction across the country. - Photo: 2023

Vanuatu’s Cyclone Destruction Makes ICJ Opinion Critical

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SUVA, Fiji, 9 March 2023 (IDN) — After two destructive cyclones and an earthquake within a week, people of the small Pacific Islands state of Vanuatu are slowly picking up the pieces after the destruction from winds and rains that flooded many properties. This devastation should strengthen Vanuatu’s ongoing initiative at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to seek an International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion on compensation for climatic change victims.

Vanuatu is a South Pacific Ocean nation made up of roughly 80 islands that stretch 1,300 kilometres with a population of just over 319,000 people. Reports from Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office indicate approximately 251,319 people, of which 125,500 are children, have been impacted by the dual tropical cyclones, which is nearly 80 per cent of the country’s population.

First, Cyclone Judy lashed the country 1st of March, followed by an earthquake of magnitude 6.6 just off the island of Espiritu Santo on early Friday and Cyclone Kevin later that day and throughout the weekend, intensifying from category 3 to 5.

In an interview with Radio New Zealand (RNZ) Pacific, Vanuatu’s only female Member of Parliament, Gloria Julia King, said, having had two category four cyclones in less than a week is history. “[It’s] something that even the elders in our families haven’t seen before,” she added, pointing out that her island nation has had its fair share of severe weather events, highlighting the destruction caused by Cyclone Pam in 2015 from which the country has still not fully recovered.

In September 2021, Vanuatu launched an initiative through the UNGA and in November, Vanuatu published a draft UN resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on states’ legal obligation for climate action and the consequences of causing harm.

The draft resolution aims to establish legal avenues for climate justice for present and future generations. It was prepared with a broad coalition of 17 countries, including a number of small island states supported by Angola, Bangladesh, Germany, Mozambique, New Zealand, Portugal and Vietnam.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s advisor Shiva Gounden, who was in the capital Port Vila when the cyclones struck, told RNZ that he saw three-to-four families huddled in homes while properties around them were being wiped out. Describing the situation around the capital, he said, “roads are completely blocked or flooded. There’s no access for anyone to leave the village for any type of emergencies”, and in addition “there’s no power. There’s no water,” he added.

Most of Vanuatu’s people are surviving on a cash economy; with their homes, schools, businesses and crops disrupted by the cyclones and the accompanied flooding, many people have no money to buy food.

Australia’s ABC Radio reported that concerns are now mounting about their dwindling food supplies, with farmers in some areas reporting the total devastation of their crops.

Joe Lautim, provincial secretary of Tafea province, has told ABC that people in his province mainly depend on their food gardens, which are totally destroyed by winds and flood waters. “Banana and root crops like cassava, sweet kumara, and taro will be rotting away in two weeks,” he warned.

People in the Pacific are now wondering if the climatic change will make their lives intolerable in the future. There used to be periodical cyclones of about 2 or 3 during the cyclone season between November and April, now, the frequency and intensity of the cyclones are increasing.

Fiji narrowly missed being in the path of the intensified cyclones this week, but heavy rains and winds in parts of the country have affected communities. Earlier this year, New Zealand faced severe flooding due to heavy rains, which they haven’t faced for generations.

“We have the most resilient people, but there is a deep hurt within us,” Gounden told RNZ, explaining that the hurt stems from fossil fuels being burned across the world, exacerbating climate change. “The people of the Pacific contribute the least to climate change, yet we face the greatest consequences of it all”, he noted.

The chair of the regional body, Pacific Islands Forum, Mark Brown from Cook Islands, says the cyclones and earthquakes which have battered Vanuatu should drive home the vulnerability and the responsibility for the global climate crisis and its impact on small island developing states. He said the ongoing anxiety and trauma caused to hundreds of families during these intensifying events is also an emerging priority.

Save the Children Pacific Director Kim Koch says that the thousands of children affected by the two cyclones could “have a lasting impact” beyond the immediate needs. Responding to a crisis on this scale will likely be a longer-term proposition.

“Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and children across the islands have been highlighting the impact of the climate crisis on their lives,” he notes.

Brown says these events have reaffirmed the need for the Pacific’s efforts to continually drive climate justice for the most vulnerable states, including through initiatives such as the ICJ Advisory Opinion on Climate Change.

Professor Prabhash Ranjan of the  Jindal Global Law School, writing in India’s Hindu newspaper on the 1st of March noted that if Vanuatu’s request for an advisory opinion goes through the UNGA, the ICJ will have multiple questions to address regarding climate change and reparations

Though ICJ’s advisory opinions are non-binding, yet a favourable opinion on climate change will also be handy in climate-related litigation at the national level, he argues, noting that over 100 member countries have reportedly backed the idea, providing it with a simple majority to give the ICJ a mandate in a vote at the UNGA.

Prof Ranjan notes that the most important question in the Vanuatu drafted resolution is the second question. It would address what are the legal consequences for states that have caused significant harm to the climate system, especially of small island states.  

“This question seeks to determine the price that states should pay for not honouring their international legal obligations on climate change,” he notes. “As part of climate justice, there is a long-standing demand for climate reparations, that is, the rich countries that have historically caused maximum greenhouse gas emissions should compensate developing countries bearing a disproportionate brunt of climate change.”

Pointing out that at COP-27, it was agreed to establish a “loss and damage” fund to financially assist vulnerable developing countries. Still, there is little clarity on which countries will provide the funding.

“The connection between funding and the historical responsibility of developed countries in emissions is yet to be determined,” argues Prof Ranjan. “In this regard, the ICJ’s answer to the second question can predictably elaborate on the legal principles that might help the operationalisation of the ‘loss and damage’ fund.” [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: © UNICEF/Rebecca Olul.Emergency supplies are delivered to people at an evacuation centre in Shefa Province in Vanuatu after Tropical cyclones Kevin and Judy left a trail of destruction across the country.

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