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Landmark U.N. Resolution Holds Countries Accountable for Climate Crisis

Web ExclusiveMarch 31, 2023
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The United Nations has adopted a landmark resolution that seeks to hold countries accountable for failing to respond to the climate crisis, while protecting more vulnerable nations. The nonbinding resolution was introduced by the low-lying Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu and calls on the International Court of Justice to establish obligations under international law for nations to protect their populations from the impacts of global heating. The United States did not support the resolution. This international effort to address climate change comes a week after the release of an IPCC report that found the Earth is on track to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of global temperature change above preindustrial levels by the 2030s. For more, we’re joined by Solomon Yeo, a youth climate activist from the Solomon Islands and one of the 27 students from eight Pacific Island countries who campaigned for the new U.N. resolution. Yeo is the campaign director and co-founder of the youth-led organization Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The United Nations has adopted a landmark resolution that seeks to hold countries accountable for failing to respond to the climate crisis, while protecting more vulnerable nations. On Wednesday, the U.N. General Assembly voted on a measure calling on the International Court of Justice to establish obligations under international law for nations to protect their populations from the impacts of global heating. The resolution was introduced by the low-lying Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, which the U.N. has described as the nation most vulnerable to natural disasters. The United States did not support the resolution. A senior Biden administration official told Reuters, quote, “We believe that diplomacy — not an international judicial process — is the most effective path forward,” they said.

Well, we’re joined right now by Solomon Yeo. He’s a youth climate activist from the Solomon Islands, the campaign director and co-founder of the youth-led group Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change. He’s among 27 students from eight Pacific Island countries who launched the campaign for the U.N. General Assembly climate resolution.

Solomon, it’s great to have you with us. I mean, you must be thoroughly exhausted, what you have accomplished. Explain how this all came about, how this resolution was passed.

SOLOMON YEO: Well, thank you so much for having me here today.

Indeed, on Wednesday, it was a historic moment for climate justice movement — for the climate justice movement. There, we have seen countries from all across both developing countries and developed nations coming together to not stand in the way to make this resolution more difficult than it should be. But finally, all countries around the world have adopted the resolution to request an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice by consensus.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain why you focused —

SOLOMON YEO: So, it was a great —

AMY GOODMAN: Solomon, explain why you focused on the International Court of Justice.

SOLOMON YEO: Yes, that’s a good question. Well, if you have seen in the world, we have all of the United Nations organs and agencies have spoken about climate change. You have the General Assembly talking about climate change and adding their voice. Security Council, other U.N. agencies, like World Health Organization, all have spoken out on climate change, except the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the U.S. did not support it.

SOLOMON YEO: U.S. did not — made their reservations, to be clear, on Wednesday, but they did support the initiative going forward. Their reservation was that they think that still diplomacy is the main way to go. But on our side, we are arguing that in this climate crisis that we’re facing all throughout the world, we should not leave any stone unturned in terms of solutions. So, of course, diplomacy is the best way to go ahead. It’s still the main way to go ahead. But it doesn’t mean that we should not consider other options that’s available to us in helping ensuring that we all give it all in terms of our efforts to do climate action.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Vanuatu’s prime minister speaking Wednesday before the U.N. General Assembly.

PRIME MINISTER ISHMAEL KALSAKAU: There’s a resolution, and the advisory opinion it seeks will have a powerful and positive impact on how we address climate change and, ultimately, protect the present and future generations. Together, we will send a loud and clear message, not only around the world, but far into the future, that on this very day, the peoples of the United Nations, acting through their governments, decided to leave aside differences and work together to tackle the defining challenge of our times: climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the prime minister of Vanuatu. And, Solomon Yeo, you are from the Solomon Islands. For people who are not familiar with the global map and the low-lying nations who are involved with this, talk about the different countries and how you came together.

SOLOMON YEO: In the Pacific, we have a thing called Pacific solidarity, and it’s in a concept that the fact that if we face a problem, we all must come together, irrespective of our differences or our disagreements. For us in the Pacific, climate change is the single greatest threat affecting our existence, and, therefore, when we talk about climate change in the Pacific, everyone will have to come in to give it their best, and in the true spirit of collaboration.

So, that was very, indeed, a powerful arrangement already, but Pacific at the forefront of climate, the climate crisis, has a strong and moral voice. And together with the governments, the youth in the Pacific and civil society have joined, as well, with their governments in pushing this forward. So you have the voice of the youth and the voice of the country’s most vulnerable in terms of climate crisis. And coming together to the international stage, that voice is very powerful, in a way that it is very appealing to many countries around the world in seeing that we have accumulated great support from other countries, and, therefore, as a result, we have managed to pass this resolution at the United Nations General Assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, passing this resolution was a project at the University of the South Pacific Law School in Vanuatu in 2019, a class that you were a part of, Solomon. Explain what happened in that classroom and how you went from that much smaller stage to the global stage here in New York at the United Nations.

SOLOMON YEO: Of course. Back in 2019, we were final-year law students at USB. And at that time, we were all thinking of — we were about to graduate. And we think that, you know, coming to university in itself is a huge privilege for us in the Pacific, as many are not fortunate to have that opportunity. We also always thought that we need to give back.

But learning in the course, as well, it’s a lecturer taught us about a new idea, that was the idea that we haven’t heard before. I was — this was for the first time I’m hearing it, the fact that there is a connection between the climate crisis and human rights. And that gave us fresh insight into a different lens to see how climate change is impacting our people, our right to food, right to shelter, right to water. They’re all undermined by the climate crisis and exacerbating by the day. We thought that that was a very important connection, because, in that sense, you will be able to hold our governments to their obligations to do something about it and protecting the citizens’ rights, and not only citizens of today but citizens of tomorrow, the future generation.

That class — from that class, we discussed, and we thought, “What are some solutions that can really help improve this, as well as complement the global negotiation, in particular, the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, to ensure that we are moving in the progress that is really necessary and urgent, that reflects the true reality on the ground?” So, from that class, we have done our research, legal research, in identifying multiple legal pathways that we could take. And the International Court of Justice advisory opinion was the one that came out to be most appealing and the class favorite. And therefore, we put together a proposal and wrote to all of the leaders in the Pacific Island, Pacific region, and encouraging them to take this initiative forward.

The law school was in Vanuatu, and Vanuatu government was the government that was very responsive to this initiative. So, after that, we, the students, got together in a team, and we visited the Vanuatu government and asking them again whether they would be interested in taking this forward. And they have acknowledged and have elevated this initiative to the regional stage, and now to the international stage.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about Vanuatu, which is leading this global initiative, an archipelago of roughly 80 islands that spreads across 1,300 kilometers, like 807 miles, hit by two Category 4 cyclones within three days earlier this month. Now, Solomon, you live in the Solomon Islands. Tell us how the whole region has been impacted by climate change, the Pacific Islands among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, worsening cyclones and rainstorms. You’re fighting for your survival. Talk about each of the nations, and many of them are archipelagos.

SOLOMON YEO: Indeed. In my personal perspective, I think, going back to when Pacific Island nation gained independence, I see that the decolonization process has not yet ended yet from that moment. Yes, we have our political independence, but we’re still being impacted by the aftermath of what was — what has led to this initiative, led to this crisis in the first place. Our right to development at the moment is currently being undermined by the climate crisis, that we did not cause in the first place.

Countries like Vanuatu, I recall, in 2015, has been hit by a very — one of the biggest cyclones they’ve ever faced, Cyclone Pam, and it took away 64% of their GDP overnight. And then, following the year, we had — they had more cyclones, and more cyclones after, and just earlier this year, you have two cyclones that hit. And you can see the trend, that cyclones are getting bigger and stronger and more frequent. And a country have to endure that — a developing country have to endure that, year in and year out.

We cannot go into the future like that, ensuring that we will have a prosperous economy and the well-being of the people are guaranteed. And therefore, this is why it’s very important for Pacific Islanders, not only Vanuatu but other Pacific Island countries who are also facing similar threats to this. As we go forward into the future, the human rights of our people are becoming more and more threatened. And the fact that we would, of course, have causing — are doing our best in terms of addressing this crisis. But still, I feel that the world — we are playing our part, but the world is not doing the other side of it in terms of addressing this issue.

So, as a result, Pacific Island countries are coming together to think about what are the solutions, the way we’ve been doing. We have been participating in the Paris Agreement negotiations at the UNFCCC processes. But we feel like the progress does not reflect the current urgency that we face in the Pacific. Hence, we’re looking into other alternatives to bring this forward. And the International Court of Justice advisory opinion was one that was — is now coming up to our radar, and we are pushing this into international spaces.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it means when we’re talking about low-lying nations, whether we’re talking about in the Pacific, like Vanuatu, like the Solomon Islands, or the Indian Ocean, for example, the Maldives. You know, when the president was President Nasheed, he held an underwater cabinet meeting to show how desperate the situation is. Your countries could disappear?

SOLOMON YEO: That’s a question that we often get in the Pacific. But it doesn’t mean that a country needs to go underwater before we cease to exist as a state. The fact that in Solomon Islands, in particular, 90% of our population reside in the coastal zones, and the fact that sea level rise is causing people to move inland has disrupted a lot of — bringing a lot of concerns to our government’s response, as well as our people’s future. So, as I’ve highlighted, it’s a growing concern that — not only for low atoll nations in the Pacific, such as Kiribati or Marshall Islands, that are thinking of relocation externally into the international countries, but for us in the Pacific, as well. Not-so-low-lying atolls, like Solomon Islands, will also face that similar threat. And, yes, as you highlighted, the threat is urgent.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about geopolitics right now, as tension rises between the United States and China across the Pacific, including the Solomon Islands. And, you know, for example, Pentagon spending going up and up, and the Pentagon known for how fuel guzzling, how — how it worsens climate change. Can you talk about how concerned you are about how this potential Cold War could affect your global efforts to combat climate change?

SOLOMON YEO: Personally, I don’t — I don’t — I have nothing, not much to contribute to this topic. But I think that China and the United States does play a huge role in climate action. And in the Pacific, of course, we see them as strategic partners in jointly collaborating to address the climate change. And when China and United States come to the Pacific, they need to understand our greatest concern is not economic, economic quarrel between who’s better and who’s that, but, more importantly, our biggest problem in the Pacific is climate change. So, working with the Pacific, China and the United States need to recognize that in order to win the support and collaborate together, they really need to also be leaders on climate action.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this resolution passed in the U.N. General Assembly. It’s historic. Maybe you thought your work was done that day, on Wednesday. But you have said before this interview that there’s more work now than there was before. Explain.

SOLOMON YEO: Yeah, the passing of this resolution is, indeed, historic and a very important step in seeking an advisory opinion. It is, I would say, the most hardest step in this process. But the second step is the more more important step, which you’re now coming to the court proceedings. This would, then — I mean, working four years now for trying to get governments to support this initiative and pass it to the United Nations was a task. But going into the second phase, you would need — we would need to now prepare governments or encourage governments around the world to bring forth their written and oral submissions before the ICJ and informing the court to make a decision that is favorable towards climate action.

So, going into the future, this would mean civil society and young people, not just in the Pacific but all throughout the world, must collaborate with their government in bringing forward what arguments they want to, like — they want the court to listen and be informed of, in ensuring that their decision will be shaped and molded around that. So, that, in itself, is also a very huge undertaking that people around the world must consider.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you graduated from law school yet?

SOLOMON YEO: Yes, I graduated in 2019.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what is it like for you to be here now in New York. You’ll be going back in a few months to the Solomon Islands. But coming to the country that is historically the greatest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, what has most surprised you, both just physically being here, but then also in your activism at the United Nations?

SOLOMON YEO: Yeah, it’s completely changed from white beaches and tropical weather and near to an ocean that you can see the bottom floor. But it’s quite interesting in this process. I’m only here because I have to. I think a lot of people back at home depend on this work and look to this work as a source of hope, as well. I’m here just because of them.

And the fact that, of course, there’s a lot of differences in terms of how society is built here and societies in the Pacific. But it’s one thing very important to me is that wherever I go in the world now, I can see a lot of people who also share that same sense of that there needs to be climate justice. So, coming here was quite reassuring to see people far across the world also share that same sentiment.

But then, coming here and meeting with the Vanuatu mission and the other missions of the Pacific Island nations here in New York for the United Nations, it felt like I never left home, as well, because the people still carries with them the same mindset, the same behaviors, the same values we have from the Pacific. So, working together with them to get this resolution through has been very comforting, as well, but also very encouraging to keep on the motivation to do this work here in this different environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Solomon Yeo, we want to thank you so much for being with us, youth climate activist from the Solomon Islands, the campaign director and co-founder of the youth-led Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, among 27 students from eight Pacific Island countries who launched the campaign for the U.N. General Assembly climate resolution, calling on the International Court of Justice to establish obligations under international law for nations to protect their populations from the impacts of global heating. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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