Press release: 19 September 2019

Climate threatened Torres Strait Islanders deliver invitation for Australian Prime Minister to visit

New York, United States – A group of indigenous Australians who have made an official complaint to the United Nations over their government’s inaction over climate change have formally requested Prime Minister Scott Morrison visit their low-lying islands in the Torres Strait.

A representative from the complainants, Kabay Tamu, will personally deliver the invitation to Australia’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, Her Excellency Gillian Bird, in New York, requesting PM Morrison witness for himself climate impacts in the region.

Tamu – a Warraber man from the Kulkalgal nation – was also in New York to speak at this week’s Peoples’ Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival a global summit on human rights and climate change, ahead of the UN climate summit next week.

In May this year, eight islanders from four different islands in the Torres Strait that are threatened by rising seas lodged a world-first complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, over the threat to their human rights.

Tamu said: “Our people have inhabited the Torres Strait Islands continuously for thousands of years. Our traditional way of life is facing an existential threat because of climate change.

“Australians all across the country are facing devastating impacts like bushfires, floods, rising seas, dying coral reefs and biodiversity extinctions. Yet the government’s response has been woeful.

“As fellow islanders, we were embarrassed by Australia’s showing at last month’s Pacific Islands Forum. Also disappointing was the Prime Minister’s decision to visit the US but skip next week’s UN climate summit.

“With no clear signal the Federal Government is acting with the urgency needed, we’re urging the PM to visit our islands, meet our communities and see the climate crisis for himself.

In the Torres Strait, rising seas are threatening homes, swamping burial grounds and washing away sacred cultural sites. Amid the steady erosion of coastlines, islanders are witnessing communities being inundated, infrastructure damaged, sea walls and flood defences breached, fresh water wells contaminated and plants and crops spoiled.

In their letter, the claimants pointed to a recent study showing that not only does Australia have one of the world’s highest carbon footprints per capita, but when fossil fuel exports were taken into account, Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions amounts to approximately five percent of total global emissions – the equivalent of Russia’s total emissions. The study estimated that Australia’s emissions could then rise to 17% of the world’s total by 2030.

Supporting the islanders’ complaint to the UN, is Australian climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac, with environmental legal charity ClientEarth. Marjanac said: “Australia punches far above its weight when it comes to greenhouse emissions and it’s affecting those in the Pacific that have contributed least to the problem.

“Failing to act on climate change means failing to protect the human rights of the Torres Strait people, and is a breach of international human rights law.

“Australia’s continued failure to build sea walls to protect the region’s islands, its continued support for fossil fuels, and its obstruction of global efforts to reduce emissions, constitutes a clear violation of the islanders’ rights to culture, family and life.”


About the complaint

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.

Lawyers with environmental law non-profit ClientEarth, are representing the islanders, with support from barristers from 20 Essex Street Chambers in London. 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 Australia.

The complaint 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.

The complainants are 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).

The public can support the islanders’ claim and petition to the PM at:

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.