Citizens from low-lying islands off Australia’s north coast will lodge an official complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, over the threat to their culture and their ability to live on their home islands.
Their case asserts that by failing to take adequate action to reduce emissions or to build proper adaptation measures on the islands, Australia is failing its legal human rights obligations to Torres Strait people.
These are the rights to culture, the right to a family and the right to life, under the first global United Nations treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Advancing seas are already threatening homes, as well as damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites.
Many islanders are worried that their islands could quite literally disappear in their lifetimes without urgent action, with severe impacts on their ability to practice their law and culture.
Eight islanders from four different Torres Strait islands are making the complaint, including: Yessie Mosby and Nazareth Warria of Masig (Yorke Island); Keith Pabai and Stanley Marama of Boigu; Nazareth Fauid of Poruma (Coconut Island); Ted Billy, Daniel Billy and Kabay Tamu of Warraber (Sue Island).
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."
Tamu continued: “If climate change means we’re forced to move away and become climate refugees in our own country, I fear this will be colonisation all over again.
"Because when you’re colonised, you’re taken away from your land and you’re forced to stop using your language and stop practising your culture and traditions.”
The complaint will be 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 claim is supported by the Torres Strait’s leading land and sea council that represents the regions’ traditional owners, Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK).
Lawyers with environmental law non-profit ClientEarth are representing the islanders, with support from barristers from 20 Essex Street Chambers in London.
Sophie Marjanac, Australian climate lawyer and ClientEarth’s lead lawyer for the case, said: “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.”
Ned David, GBK chairman and Iama (Yam Island) Traditional Owner, said: “As Mabo Day approaches, and we celebrate that landmark native title decision for the Torres Strait, this claim is highlighting the next chapter in our story: ensuring our traditional culture survives climate change.
“The Australian government needs to act, and quickly. 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 claimants have launched a national petition campaign highlighting their asks for the Australian government.
Their demands include committing at least $20 million 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; reducing Australia’s emissions by at least 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and going net zero before 2050; and phasing out thermal coal, both for domestic electricity generation and export markets.
The online petition is being hosted by grassroots climate action group 350.org. Veteran US environmental activist and co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, said: “The Torres Strait islands have been settled for millennia, but if the Australian government continues on its present course they may not last the century.
"This lawsuit is part of an epic fight to hold the carbon barons accountable for wrecking the one planet we've got."
Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from ClientEarth.