Can countries be sued over climate change?

Can countries be sued over climate change?



  • On March 29, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that asked the International Court of Justice at The Hague to provide an opinion on what kind of obligations countries have towards climate change reduction, based on the promises they have made to the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Points to ponder:

  • The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on March 29, 2023, that asked the International Court of Justice to provide an advisory opinion on the legal obligations of countries toward climate change reduction.
  • The resolution was pushed through by the Pacific Island of Vanuatu, which was devastated by the effects of Cyclone Pam in 2015, believed to have been spurred by climate change.
  • The resolution seeks to know what obligations states have under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system for present and future generations, and what legal consequences exist when they cause significant harm to the climate system.
  • India has not officially supported the move but has referred the resolution to legal authorities to study the implications and international ramifications of the ICJ opinion.
  • Co-sponsors of the resolution hope that an opinion from the ICJ would bolster the efforts under the UNFCCC to ensure all countries work towards mitigating climate change to the suggested 1.5-2°C limit.
  • The ICJ is expected to give its opinion based on the Convention already consented to by all countries, but it could also address contentious issues such as climate reparations by the developed world, legal culpability for countries that don’t achieve their NDC promises and climate support to the most vulnerable parts of the world battling the effects of global warming.
  • The UNGA route adopted by Vanuatu and its supporters appears to have been more inclusive than two other attempts for an advisory opinion sought in December 2022 by the Small Island States to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and another by Colombia and Chile in January 2023 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) asking for an advisory opinion on human rights obligations for countries about the “climate emergency.”
  • The original idea for taking the case for climate obligations to the highest legal court came from a group of 27 Pacific Island law students who brought it to the Pacific Islands Forum in 2019.

India’s Stance:

  • India has remained carefully silent on the matter thus far, despite its general support for the need for climate justice, which holds the industrialized world accountable for global warming.
  • India is also monitoring how global powers such as the United States and China react to the decision, as it will be difficult to execute without their backing.