Vance Center Files Brief in Landmark Climate Case at Inter-American Court

December 2023

The Vance Center has filed a comprehensive brief in a landmark climate case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Court is considering a request for an advisory opinion outlining the obligations that States owe in relation to the climate emergency under the American Convention on Human Rights. Together with Milbank LLP, the Vance Center is representing three UN Special Rapporteurs before the Court. 

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Court received a request from two States, Chile and Colombia, for an advisory opinion on States’ climate obligations under the American Convention. The Vance Center’s Environment Program has worked with Milbank and three UN Special Rapporteurs – the rapporteurs on human rights and the environment David Boyd; rapporteur on toxics and human rights Dr. Marcos Orellana; and rapporteur on the right to development Surya Deva – to prepare a brief to assist the court as it responds to this request.  

The brief, filed in English and Spanish, sets out a range of ways in which the climate emergency threatens the human rights of all people living in the Americas, including rights to life, health, food, and self-determination; the right to a healthy environment; and the rights of Indigenous peoples. The brief then sets out the intersection of human rights and international environmental law, identifying key principles which States must account for in their responses to the climate emergency. Finally, it identifies State obligations derived from these principles, including the need to phase out fossil fuels, increase renewable energy production, and compensate communities for loss and damage. 

The brief was prepared by Vance Center staff as well as a team of Milbank lawyers, led by Vance Center Committee member and Milbank partner Viren Mascarenhas. This collaboration follows on from a brief filed in another advisory opinion, before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.  

In addition to contributing briefs to influential international cases, the Vance Center also continues to pursue opportunities to encourage public dialogue on the intersection of human rights, environmental law, and the climate emergency and to highlight the findings of these briefs for a broader audience. In October, Milbank hosted a lively discussion on both briefs at an event with the Vance Center. 

These briefs have the potential to significantly impact future legal frameworks and action to address the climate emergency as courts, including international courts, are playing an increasingly important role in climate governance. Because the climate emergency is a complex problem, State obligations can arise under a variety of different legal regimes. Many of these regimes, including the American Convention, predate modern understandings of the climate emergency. Courts can help interpret these pre-existing laws, harmonize different regimes, and clarify what States must do to comply.