Press release: 25 September 2023

One year on from historic Torres Strait UN climate victory - no compensation despite legal finding

  • One year anniversary of historic UN legal victory for Torres Strait claimants
  • Australian government rejects Geneva’s finding to award compensation
  • Claimants hold constructive dialogue with MPs but more commitment needed

One year on from the historic legal decision linking the human rights of Torres Strait Islander people to inaction on climate change, the Australian government is maintaining its rejection of a key United Nations finding to award them compensation. 

The Torres Strait Islander claimants made international legal history in September last year, after the UN Human Rights Committee found that the Australian government is violating its human rights obligations by not helping them adapt to the impacts of climate change.

In its official reply, the Australian government agreed with the finding that climate change is currently impacting the claimants’ daily lives and cultural practices. But the government refused the UN Committee’s recommendation to award compensation to the claimants.

The decision marked the first time an international tribunal found a country has violated human rights law through inadequate climate policy; the first time a nation state has been found responsible for their greenhouse gas emissions under international human rights law; and, the first time that peoples’ right to culture has been found to be violated by climate impacts.

Claimants were disappointed that their government rejected the UN’s finding that Australia needed to pay compensation for the two violations found by the Committee. Although they noted the government’s commitment to implement measures necessary for their communities’ continued safe existence on their islands, they were concerned that substantially increased funding commitments to adaptation measures such as seawalls is needed. 

Claimants are also calling for the planned ‘Torres Strait Climate Change Centre of Excellence’ and the government to negotiate further with their communities about what the centre will deliver on the ground. 

Since the ruling, claimants have entered dialogue with MPs in Canberra and despite constructive discussions claimants say further concrete commitments are needed.

Yessie Mosby, a Kulkalgal man and Traditional Owner on the island of Masig and a claimant in the case, said: 

“The government is accountable for the damages and losses we have been through in the Torres Strait due to climate change, and their response is disappointing for our people.

“We can't pack our bags and go – we are not connected to any other place but this beautiful island we call home. Masig holds our lineage, our loved ones, our memories, our ancestral beliefs and our way of living.”

Daniel Billy, a Traditional Owner on the island of Warraber and claimant in the case, said:

“Looking at the response from the government, it’s clear there is not enough funding for the region for projects such as seawalls. I don’t see enough commitment from the government to slow down climate change and the companies that cause it.

“Climate change is still happening right before our very eyes, and still the government is not taking the action needed on this serious issue. Words are just words, we want to see action now.”

Ted Billy, a Traditional Owner on the island of Warraber, and claimant said:

“Every human being should have a God given equal right to live and enjoy life”

Australian climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac, with environmental legal charity ClientEarth, acted for the claimants. Marjanac said that Australia will not be legally compliant if it maintains its rejection of the UN’s key recommendation.

“We welcome the government has admitted that the Torres Strait is particularly affected by sea level rise, and its acknowledgment that the Indigenous people of the region have an important role to play in Australia’s climate response.

“But the government is failing its legal obligations by rejecting the Committee’s finding that the claimants should be compensated by their government. It is also clear that the communities of Zendath Kes will need far greater commitment from the Australian government in order to adapt and to retain their cultural connection to Country”.

In its decision the UN Committee agreed with the 2019 complaint stating that:

  • Climate change was indeed currently impacting the claimants’ daily lives; and to the extent that their rights are being violated;
  • Australia’s poor climate record is a violation of their right to family life and right to culture under the global human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A minority of the Committee also found that the government had violated their right to life. 

The public campaign led by the Torres Strait Eight, Our Islands Our Home, has vowed to build on this win by calling on the new government to take urgent action.

The claim was 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, represented the claimants, with support from barristers from 20 Essex Street Chambers in London and the Victorian Bar.


Notes to editors:

The claimants are from a group of islands off the northern tip of Queensland, Australia, between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea. The Torres Strait is home to  unique First Nations peoples, distinct from mainland Indigenous Australians. They have inhabited the region for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. Rising sea levels and are currently threatening Torres Strait Islanders’ homes, burial grounds and sacred cultural sites. Without urgent action, many Zenadh Kes people fear that their islands could become inhabitable within their own lifetime.

A timeline of the complaint can be found here and an FAQ can be accessed here.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.