Press release: 30 September 2020

Torres Strait Islander claimants in historic climate case ramp up their campaign

Torres Strait Islander claimants in a historic climate case are ramping up their struggle, submitting an official reply to the Australian Government’s attempt to get the case dismissed and rallying supporters on social media.

In their formal response, the claimants have expressed disappointment that Australia’s position fails to recognise the basic human rights obligations it has to its people. They say it also fails to recognise the environmental impacts climate change has already brought to their Islands – impacts they witness and have deep knowledge of as Traditional Owners.

In May last year, eight individuals from across the Torres Strait lodged a complaint with the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva, highlighting the threat of climate change to their culture and their ability to live on their home islands. In August it was revealed that the Australian Government is attempting to get the UN to dismiss the complaint, denying that climate change is impacting the human rights of Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Advancing seas are already threatening homes, as well as damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites. Many Torres Strait Islander people are worried their islands could disappear in their lifetimes, without urgent action – a concern backed by the latest climate science.

On September 29th, the eight claimants submitted a formal reply to the UN, arguing that Australia has failed to acknowledge that significant climate impacts – such as advancing erosion, coral bleaching and the extinction of regional plant and animal species – are happening now and have already impacted the human rights of Torres Strait Islander communities.

Lawyers for the claimants also state that Australia is wrong to claim that it cannot be held responsible for the global issue of climate change, and that it is disingenuous to claim that climate change is an issue Australia is currently committed to tackling.

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

“How can the Australian Government say this is just a future threat to our rights? We are watching our ancestors’ bones wash away, our crops destroyed by salinity, and our drinking water is contaminated.”

Australian climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac, with environmental legal charity ClientEarth, is acting for the Islanders in this complaint. Marjanac said:

“Australia is clearly an outlier, a laggard at the bottom of the league when it comes to international climate action. It has a long track record of inaction at home, and international obstruction in efforts to reduce the amount of global heating pollution in our atmosphere.

“It has the world’s highest per capita emissions and its commitments to the Paris Agreement are woefully inadequate. If the Australian Government claims it’s not responsible for the human rights of its most climate vulnerable citizens, after its continued climate inaction, then who is?”

The claimants are calling for solidarity from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from across Australia and the world, launching a photo action on social media to coincide with the formal submission of their reply to the Australian Government.

As part of the photo action, photos featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from many nations across the continent, as well as Indigenous people from across the Pacific region, are being shared with the hashtags #TorresStrait8 and #OurIslandsOurHome. The claimants are calling for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to share photos on the 29th of September to help raise awareness of their campaign.

According to the claimants, the timing is significant given that September marks the anniversary of the creation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Our message to the Australian public is to please support us in solidarity in this fight to save our island homes, our people, and our culture for our children and future generations,” said Yessie Mosby.

The #OurIslandsOurHome campaign has already gathered more than 20,000 petition signatures, which the claimants plan to deliver to the Government in November.


Media contact:

For interviews with Yessie Mosby, please contact Australia: Lucy Manne  +61 (0)417 387 516

For interviews with Sophie Marjanac please contact ClientEarth: Martin Watters  +44 (0)74321 107787

About the complaint:

The 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 Torres Strait Islander claimants, with support from barristers from Twenty Essex 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), environmental group 350 Australia, and the Seed Youth Indigenous Climate Network.

The complaint asserts that by failing to take adequate action to reduce emissions or to implement proper adaptation measures on the islands, Australia is failing its legal human rights obligations to Torres Strait people. These are the right to life, rights to culture, the right to the protection of family and home, and the rights of children under one of the first global human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The case’s legal arguments have been detailed further in an Open Global Rights article.

Australia’s response to the complaint states the case should be rejected because it concerns future risks, rather than impacts being felt now. Australia’s lawyers also stated that because the country is not the main or only contributor to global warming, climate change action is not its legal responsibility under human rights law.

About the campaign:

The public can support the campaign and the petition to the Prime Minister at:

The public can follow the campaign on social media by following the @OurIslandsOurHome Instagram account.

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.