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Australia takes stand for climate justice

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Vanuatu was recently hit by devastating cyclones causing tens of millions of dollars in damage (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australia has joined a campaign for the International Court of Justice to issue an opinion on climate change and human rights, write Cynthia Houniuhi and Peter Walton.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, right as Cyclone Judy was tearing roofs off homes in Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Government was making a tally.

Not of the number of people in evacuation centres (although this was happening as well), but of the number of nations that would co-sponsor a resolution they are putting to a vote at the UN in the pursuit of climate justice. Australia, in a step that will help to improve its international reputation on climate change, is one of 105 co-sponsors.

The resolution is aimed at getting the International Court of Justice to issue advice on climate change and human rights. This would be an important legal catalyst for action to address the climate crisis that is fueling storms like the ones that hit both Vanuatu and the Northern Territory earlier this month.

It would clarify and shape obligations for Australia – and states which have human rights obligations under international law – that governments would have to consider, for example, when approving new coal or gas projects. While advisory opinions from the Court aren't binding, they are highly persuasive.

This campaign was spearheaded by young people from the Pacific and it has made it this far thanks largely to a coalition of activists from developing countries. Because the great injustice of climate change is its severe impact on the people who are least responsible for it.

We are, respectively, one of those youth activists, and the CEO of an Australian aid agency with a long history of helping climate-vulnerable communities prepare for and respond to disasters.

Cynthia grew up in a remote part of the Solomon Islands, amongst communities that rely on the land and the sea for their food and income. But like many members of the diverse Pacific community, the natural environment is, for her, about more than just livelihoods — it’s about identity.

To have this threatened by climate change moved her to act, together with 26 of her fellow law students at the University of the South Pacific. For Cynthia and the other students, just talking about climate change is not an option because it is an urgent matter of existence.

For Peter’s part, more than 30 years of experience in international organisations responding to disasters has made it clear that climate change is here, now, and it doesn’t impact everyone equally. People living in poverty, women, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups are too often denied the resources and opportunities to prepare for climate disasters and rebuild their lives in the aftermath.

As a new report from Women’s Agenda in partnership with CARE Australia details, the unique impacts of climate change on women are too often overlooked, as are the opportunities for their participation in the solutions. Despite the barriers, women play a huge role in climate activism and in helping their communities prepare for and respond to climate shocks. And when one woman escapes poverty, she brings four others with her — a powerful multiplier.

On Wednesday, as the resolution’s co-sponsors were being tallied, CARE’s team in Vanuatu was picking up phones to assist local volunteers in remote communities with weather information and going over rehearsed emergency plans. Many of these volunteers are women and people living with a disability. With limited access to the internet, TV or radio, this preparation saves lives.

But on Friday, as communities were assessing the damage and starting the cleanup, another cyclone made landfall. This cycle of rolling disasters can not only cost lives and livelihoods, it sets climate-vulnerable countries back in their progress towards bettering the lives of their citizens.

This is why an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice is needed and why the campaign is encouraging all states to vote “Yes” to sending the issue to the Court at the UN General Assembly later this month.

Australia’s co-sponsorship sends a message that it will stand by its Pacific neighbours in their pursuit of climate justice, and the Government should put its diplomatic weight behind encouraging other states to vote “Yes”. This is an opportunity for all states to transform their climate ambition because an opinion from the Court will strengthen and guide the goals of the Paris Agreement.

A focus of the proposed resolution is the link between climate change and human rights. For the communities on the frontline of the climate crisis, their rights to life, housing, food and health are infringed by climate change impacts every day.

The resolution also focuses on the rights of current and future generations to be protected from the adverse effects of climate change. Young people are leading this campaign because they are fighting for their future. In doing so, they are standing on the shoulders of giants — the Indigenous environmental stewards who have come before them.

The science is clear and stronger action to stop climate change was needed yesterday. The next best time is right now. This is a fight for the survival of our lands, our oceans, our culture and the generations unborn.

Cynthia Houniuhi is a law student and president of Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change.

Peter Walton is CEO of CARE Australia and has previously worked for the Australian Red Cross, Infoxchange, Save The Children and ChildFund Australia.

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Australia takes stand for climate justice

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