Human rights and climate change: world-first case to protect indigenous Australians

By agency reporter
May 13, 2019

ClientEarth is acting on behalf of a group of indigenous Australians from the Torres Strait region in a groundbreaking climate change case.

Eight Torres Strait Islanders are making a complaint against the Australian government, alleging that its failure to act on climate change is violating their fundamental human rights.

The beautiful Torres Strait Islands lie off the northern tip of Queensland, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. For thousands of years they have been home to a unique indigenous people. Their culture and ancestral homeland is now at risk from climate change. The effects are already starting to be seen and are hitting the islanders hard. Tides are rising every year, flooding homes, lands and important cultural sites. Rising sea temperatures are blighting the health of the marine environments around the islands, by bleaching the coral and acidifying the ocean.

One of the complaint authors and sixth-generation Warraber man, Kabay Tamu, said: “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. We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities who practice culture and traditions."

The Australian government currently has no policies in place to meet its emissions reduction target and continues to push the interests of fossil fuel industries. As they see their culture, environment and homelands being destroyed, the islanders believe that the Australian government’s inaction is leaving them unprotected against the most severe climate impacts.

In a complaint submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, they allege that the effects of Australia’s insufficient plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its failure to fund coastal defences constitute a violation of their human rights.

The eight Islanders are calling on Canberra to do much more to protect their unique culture and way of life. They are asking for adequate coastal defence measures to tackle the rising tides that are happening today. And they are urging the Australian government to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce the impact in the future.

Sophie Marjanac is an Australian lawyer, and Client Earth's lead lawyer on the case. She says: “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.”

* Client Earth works to protect the environment through advocacy, litigation and science  https://www.clientearth.org/

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