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ClientEarth Communications

29 September 2021

Climate accountability
Asia & the Pacific

Australia doubles down on climate inaction in final step of Torres Strait complaint

The Australian Government has continued to deny its responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens from climate change, as detailed in its final reply to a human rights complaint brought by Indigenous Torres Strait / Zenadh Kes people.

In its reply to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Australia said it is already doing enough on climate change, and that the future climate impacts are too uncertain to require it to act.

This was the last procedural step in a world-first complaint brought by eight Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners in 2019, alleging that their Government has failed to uphold its human rights obligations and that its inaction has led to violations of their rights to culture, life and family.

Evidence from the group shows climate change wreaking havoc on their low-lying island homes, with rising seas leading to coastal erosion as well as flooding of homes, sacred cultural sites, and burial grounds.

The need to protect the Torres Strait is urgent, but the Australian Government is doubling down on climate inaction.

Climate impacts are here and now

In its last official response to the Committee, Australia argues that the future impacts of climate change are too uncertain to require it to act.

Yet many from the Torres Strait 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.

Yessie Mosby, a Zenadh Kes Masig man living in the Kulkalgal tribe area, and a claimant in the case, said:

“We invited the government to visit our islands but they declined our invitation. It is a lie for the government to say that we are not affected by climate change right now.

“We have seen our island homes wash away. We fear the high tides and we notice the seabirds not returning. We watch the winds blow stronger and for longer. We have seen our loved ones' remains wash away with the rising seas.

“The government has a duty of care and it's for all Australians not just for the people who live down on the mainland. Tell the truth – you are not trying your best to help us. Stop lying.”

The claimants have been expecting a decision in the case this year. But following delays in the legal process, lawyers for the claimants have written to the Committee respectfully calling on them to expedite the complaint and come to a decision urgently.

In their letter, lawyers highlighted that while Australia was granted extensions to reply, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report. This report – a “code red for humanity” – outlined significant increases in the level of projected sea level rise compared to its previous report.

Australia has a responsibility to act

The Australian Government has also said the case should be dismissed because any one country cannot be held legally responsible for climate change, and that it is already doing enough.

Yet in the lead up to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November, there is real concern that Australia will be a wrecking influence on international efforts, with its continued support of coal and fossil gas.

Australia’s track record of working against international efforts to tackle climate change is concerning. Just this month it was revealed it had pressured the UK to remove key climate commitments from a new trade deal.

Australia also lags far behind other countries like the US, UK and Japan, has failed to commit to a net zero emissions target by 2050 and continues to use “accounting tricks” when calculating its emissions reductions.

“In its response to the Human Rights Committee, Australia claims that it cannot be held legally responsible for an international problem like climate change and that it is already doing enough to address it,” said ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac, who is acting for the claimants.

“But Australia continues its support for fossil fuels, of which it is a massive exporter, and is among the world’s biggest emitters per capita. If Australia is not required to act under human rights law, then who is?”

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