Australian Government denies responsibility for climate-threatened Torres Strait

By agency reporter
August 18, 2020

The Australian Government has denied climate change is currently impacting the human rights of Indigenous Torres Strait Islanders, and is trying to avoid its legal responsibility to protect them from rising seas, ClientEarth lawyers have said.

After more than a year, the Government has formally responded to a complaint made by a group of Torres Strait Islanders to the United Nations, alleging Australia was failing in its duty to protect its climate vulnerable communities, and has said that the complaint should be dismissed.

In May last year, a group of eight Islanders from the low lying archipelago in the country’s far north lodged the complaint with the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva, highlighting the threat of climate change to their culture and their ability to live on their home islands.

Advancing seas are already threatening homes, as well as damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites. Many Islanders are worried their islands could disappear in their lifetimes without urgent action – a concern backed by the latest climate science.

Australia’s response to the Islanders’ complaint states the case should be rejected because it concerns future risks, rather than impacts being felt now. Australia’s lawyers also stated that because the country is not the main or only contributor to global warming, climate change action is not its legal responsibility under human rights law.

One of the claimants, Daniel Billy, a Warraber Island man from the Kulkalgal nation in the central Torres Strait, said: “In our culture, it’s the responsibility of those alive today to look after our traditional way of life for future generations. Our Kulkalgal elders say we must look after our land and sea for our children and their children.

“We can’t wait around any longer – the Government needs to take action in the present before rising seas mean our island and our culture is lost.”

Last year, the Islanders called on the Government to reduce Australia’s emissions by at least 65 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to commit to reach net zero by 2050; as well as sustained investment in long-term adaptation measures to ensure the islands can continue to be inhabited.

Last September, the Islanders personally invited Prime Minister Scott Morrison to visit their communities to see the climate impacts for himself. Mr Morrison declined the offer, however the Government later promised funds for emergency coastal defences, such as sea walls.

In that funding announcement, the Government failed to mention climate change as a key reason coastal defences were needed. And in its legal response to the Islanders’ complaint, Australia’s lawyers also rejected arguments that climate impacts were being felt today.

Australian climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac, with environmental legal charity ClientEarth, is acting for the Islanders in this complaint. Marjanac said: “It’s shameful that indigenous communities on Australia’s climate frontline are being told that the risk of climate change to their human rights is merely a ‘future hypothetical’ issue, when scientists are clear these impacts will happen in coming decades.

“My clients are watching as their traditional lands, their homes, their sacred sites and burial grounds are being eroded by the steadily encroaching waves. Climate change risk is foreseeable and only preventable through immediate action in the present. States like Australia have legal duties to protect the human rights of their citizens.

“Twenty eight years after Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo changed Commonwealth law to recognise the traditional owners of Australia, we need the Government to recognise the rights of today’s Torres Strait Islanders to continue practising their culture.”

The exact details of Australia’s legal response to the complaint must remain confidential. Now that Australia has responded to the complaint, the Islanders will be required to respond before October this year.

The claim is supported by the Torres Strait’s leading land and sea council that represents the regions’ traditional owners, Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) and environmental group 350.org Australia.

The Islanders’ complaint was the first climate change litigation brought against the Australian federal government, based on human rights and the first legal action worldwide brought by inhabitants of low-lying islands against a nation state. The complaint asserts that by failing to take adequate action to reduce emissions or to implement proper adaptation measures on the islands, Australia is failing its legal human rights obligations to Torres Strait people. These are the right to life, rights to culture, the right to the protection of family and home, and the rights of children under one of the first global human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The claimants have also launched an online campaign to build public support for their petition to the Prime Minister, featuring Torres Strait Islander music, dance, art and culture. The online campaign is supported by First Nations people across Australia and the Pacific, who are taking to social media in solidarity with the Torres Strait Islanders at the centre of the UN case using the hashtags #OurIslandsOurHome and #TorresStrait8.

The digital campaign can be followed on Instagram through the @OurIslandsOurHome page, ahead of the petition being delivered to the Government later this year.

* ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet https://www.clientearth.org/

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