Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its ‘Unimportance’ to Launch Big Climate Ideas

Vanuatu’s geopolitical relationships are different. China is stepping up its diplomatic influence in the Pacific, including with Vanuatu, which is introducing Chinese language instruction in its schools. Australia is its biggest trading partner, and the nation is defended by Australia, New Zealand and France.

It has its diplomatic eggs in many baskets, and its president said he wasn’t concerned about pressure from rich, industrialized countries to drop the campaign for an international legal opinion. “If they threaten us, we stop? This thing will stop? I doubt it ma’am,” he said.

The draft resolution asks the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, to assess existing laws, such as the covenants on cultural rights and the Law of the Sea, to consider whether they protect current and future generations from climate hazards. Already a handful of national courts have ruled in favor of activists’ lawsuits, relying in part on international law.

“A decision from the ICJ could be the most authoritative statement to date of the obligations that international law imposes on states to control their greenhouse gas emissions,” said Michael Gerrard, a law professor at Columbia Law School, who was involved in the previous effort by Palau and the Marshall Islands.

To hear Mr. Vurobaravu tell it, Vanuatu’s diplomatic strategy has been shaped by its history. Britain and France, rival powers, could never agree on most things concerning the governance of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu, he said, had to figure out strategies that bigger, more powerful countries would have no reason to pursue. “We had to learn how to manage our unimportance. And I know it sounds a bit corny and funny, but our people had to do that for 75 years, he said. “We still do.”