A remote collection of small, low-lying islands off the country’s northern most tip, Australia’s Torres Strait region is home to thousands of Indigenous people, who care for and rely on its land to sustain their culture and way of life. But, due to the ever-rising sea levels that come with a warming world, the islands of the Torres Strait are steadily being eroded. In May last year, with the help of our lawyers, a group of concerned Islanders lodged a world-first complaint with the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva, highlighting the threat of climate change to their culture and ability to continue to live on their islands, and alleging Australia is failing in its duty to protect its climate-vulnerable communities. More than a year later, the Australian Government has responded.
Australian Government requests the complaint be dismissed
Despite first-hand accounts of rising seas destroying sacred sites and natural resources from the Islanders – backed by the latest climate science that sea level rise will make some islands uninhabitable if urgent action isn’t taken – the Australian Government has stated that the complaint should be dismissed. Denying that climate change is currently impacting the human rights of Indigenous Torres Strait Islanders, the Government claims that the complaint concerns future risks, rather than impacts being felt now. Australia’s lawyers also stated that because their country is not the main or only contributor to global warming, the effects of climate change on its citizens is not its legal responsibility under human rights law.
Last September, the Islanders personally invited the country’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to visit their islands and see the damage climate change was inflicting for himself. Mr Morrison declined the offer, but the Government did promise the region a sum of AUD $25 million to invest in emergency coastal defences, such as sea walls. However, much more will be required to secure the long-term, safe, continued habitation of these low lying islands.
Islanders ‘can’t wait around any longer’
“In our culture, it is the responsibility of those alive today to look after our traditional way of life for future generations,” said Daniel Billy, a Warraber Islander from the Torres Strait’s Kulkalgal nation, and one of the claimants.
“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.”
In 2019, the Islanders called on the Government to reduce Australia’s emissions by at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to commit to reaching net zero by 2050. They also demanded sustained investment to ensure the islands can continue to be inhabited. The Government however, is adamant that its climate commitments are adequate, despite having one of the worst records on climate action among developed countries.
Climate change needs to be addressed in the present
In response to the Government’s claims that the Islanders’ complaint should be dismissed, our Australian climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac, who has been acting on behalf of the Islanders, had this to say:
“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 years.
“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 only preventable through immediate action in the present. States like Australia have legal duties to protect the human rights of their citizens.”
The Islanders also recently launched an online campaign to build public support for their petition to the Prime Minister, featuring Torres Strait Islander music, dance, art and culture, supported by First Nations people across Australia and the Pacific.
The Islanders’ campaign 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.