News State QLD News Torres Strait Islanders take climate change fury to UN

Torres Strait Islanders take climate change fury to UN

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A home on Poruma Island in the Torres Strait, with only sandbags between its back door and the high tide mark. Photo: AAP
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Torres Strait Islanders are going to the United Nations to accuse the Morrison government of breaching their human rights over its inaction on climate change.

The group, who say they are losing their homes to rising seas, will on Monday lodge an official complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland.

Their complaint argues the government’s failure to adequately cut emissions and build defences such as sea walls has violated their basic human rights to life and culture.

Environmental law charity ClientEarth is supporting the islanders’ action.

It said the complaint would be the first climate change litigation brought against the Australian government, based on human rights.

It’s also the first legal action worldwide brought by inhabitants of low-lying islands against a nation state, the charity 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,” complainant and Sue Island resident Kabay Tamu said.

Lead lawyer Sophie Marjanac said the complaint would demonstrate how climate change inaction was violating people’s basic rights to live safely and in their ancestral homelands.

“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,” she said.

Eight islanders from four Torres Strait islands are making the complaint.

They have also launched a petition demanding a series of commitments from the government. They want Australia to stop using and exporting thermal coal for electricity generation and achieve zero net emissions before 2050.

They’re also seeking at least $20 million for protective infrastructure such as sea walls and to help islands adapt so they can remain habitable.

The Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) Sea and Land Council is the peak native title body for the Torres Strait region.

GBK chairman and Yam Island traditional owner Ned David said the rights of Torres Strait Islanders to their culture, homelands, history and future were on the line.

“The Australian government needs to act, and quickly,” he said.

“We extend an invitation to Australia’s next prime minister, whoever that is after this week’s federal election, to visit our islands, see the situation for themselves and commit to protecting First Nation peoples on the climate frontline.”

The islanders’ claims:

  • Eight islanders will lodge an official complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee on Monday’
  • They accuse the Australian government of breaching their basic human rights by not adequately protecting their island homes from sea-level rises driven by climate change;
  • They say the government isn’t doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions and hasn’t funded vital protective infrastructure such as sea walls;
  • The islanders accuse the government of violating their rights to culture and life, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • 18 legal experts on the UN committee in Geneva will decide on the complaint, but a decision could take up to three years;
  • The government will likely be invited to respond;
  • Even if the islanders win, the committee cannot force Australia to comply with its decision;
  • The islanders hope a win will increase pressure on the government to act meaningfully on climate change.