A group of Torres Strait Islanders from low-lying islands off the northern coast of Australia will on Monday lodge a complaint with the United Nations human rights committee against the Australian government, alleging climate inaction.
The complaint will assert that the Morrison government has failed to take adequate action to reduce emissions or pursue proper adaptation measures on the islands and, as a consequence, has failed fundamental human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islander people.
One of the complainants, sixth-generation Warraber man, Kabay Tamu, said in a statement: “When erosion happens, and the lands get taken away by the seas, it’s like a piece of us that gets taken with it – a piece of our heart, a piece of our body. That’s why it has an effect on us. Not only the islands but us, as people.
“We have a sacred site here, which we are connected to spiritually. And disconnecting people from the land, and from the spirits of the land, is devastating.
“It’s devastating to even imagine that my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren being forced to leave because of the effects that are out of our hands.
“We’re currently seeing the effects of climate change on our islands daily, with rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion and inundation of our communities.”
The non-profit coordinating the complaint by the Torres Strait Islanders says this will be the first climate change litigation brought against the Australian government based on a human rights complaint, and also the first legal action worldwide brought by inhabitants of low-lying islands against a nation state.
Lawyers with environmental law non-profit ClientEarth, are representing the islanders, with support from British-based barristers.
The UN Human Rights Committee is a body of 18 legal experts that sits in Geneva. The committee monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The complainants are alleging that Australia has violated article 27, the right to culture; article 17, the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home; and article 6, the right to life.
According to briefing material supplied by ClientEarth, the complaint alleges these rights have been violated both by Australia’s insufficient greenhouse gas mitigation targets and plans, and by its failure to fund adequate coastal defence and resilience measures on the islands, such as seawalls.
Lawyers for the islanders allege that the catastrophic nature of the predicted future impacts of climate change on the Torres Strait Islands, including the total submergence of ancestral homelands, is a sufficiently severe impact as to constitute a violation of the rights to culture, family and life.
The islanders want the government to commit at least $20m for emergency measures such as seawalls, as requested by local authorities, and sustained investment in long-term adaptation measures to ensure the islands can continue to be inhabited.
They want a commitment to reduce emissions by at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030 and going net zero before 2050 and a phase out of thermal coal, both for domestic electricity generation and export markets.
ClientEarth’s lead lawyer for the case, Sophie Marjanac, said in a statement: “Climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue. The predicted impacts of climate change in the Torres Strait, including the inundation of ancestral homelands, would be catastrophic for its people.
“Australia’s continued failure to build infrastructure to protect the islands, and to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, constitutes a clear violation of the islanders’ rights to culture, family and life.”
The impact of climate change has been a significant touchstone in the 2019 election. A recent poll from a respected foreign policy thinktank, the Lowy Institute, has found a majority of Australians believe global warming is a critical threat.
The poll undertaken for Lowy says 64% of adults rank climate change number one on a list of 12 threats to Australia’s national interests, up six points from last year’s survey and a jump of 18 points since 2014.
The 2019 result is the first time climate has topped the list of threats since Lowy began the research in 2006.