Press release: 11 December 2020

UN experts lend weight to Torres Strait human rights climate complaint

Legal experts appointed by the United Nations have supported the legal arguments of eight Torres Strait Islander people who are claiming the Australian Government’s ongoing inaction on climate change constitutes a breach of their human rights.

The current and the former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment have submitted an independent legal brief to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva backing the group’s “ground-breaking” complaint.

In a joint amicus curiae brief, which is an independent submission based on expert knowledge, Professor David Boyd and Professor John Knox say that the group’s complaint could set a global precedent in finding that human rights are violated by climate change impacts.

The complaint, lodged in May 2019, alleges that due to sustained inaction on mitigation of greenhouse gasses, and by failing to help the people of the Torres Strait adapt, Australia is failing its legal human rights obligations to the claimants.

The human rights in question include the right to culture, life, equal treatment of children, and protection of family and home.

Dr Boyd, the current UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment and Associate Professor of Law, Policy and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia said:

“Human rights depend on a healthy environment, which includes a safe climate. The effects of the climate crisis are being felt right now by those on the climate frontline, such as residents of small islands, but they don’t have a seat at the table.

“By failing to accept that climate change is affecting the Torres Strait Islander people, failing to substantially reduce emissions, and failing to facilitate adaptation to the changes, the Australian Government isn’t meeting their human rights obligations.

“A rights-based approach to climate change is critical because it ensures mechanisms are in place to hold governments accountable for fulfilling their commitments. This case has the potential to set a globally important precedent.”

Professor Knox, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment and Henry C Lauerman Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University said:

“Global thinking about human rights and climate change has shifted since governments first asked questions about the links between climate change and human rights.

“There is now consensus that climate change has many adverse effects on human rights and that governments have obligations to protect their people from those effects.

“To meet their human rights obligations, governments must fulfil their climate change commitments, which for Australia includes meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement and setting out net-zero plans.

“Governments must also adopt and implement adaptation measures that protect the Torres Strait Islander people and others most at risk from climate change, on the basis of meaningful consultation with those directly affected.”

The Human Rights Committee in Geneva is expected to consider the brief from the two legal experts when it reviews the complaint and the responses of the parties.

Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth lawyer acting on behalf of the claimants, said:

“Year after year, the Torres Strait Islander people are seeing the effects of climate change first-hand, threatening their way of life and their ability to live on their home islands.

“The Australian government has a legal duty to recognise the devastating impact climate change is having on the human rights of Torres Strait residents, and should be taking the appropriate measures to protect them.”

This historic case is also being supported by the Torres Strait’s Sea and Land Council representing the regions’ traditional owners, Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK), and the environmental group Australia. Australia are supporting a petition from the group of eight with the #OurIslandsOurHome campaign that has helped gather more than 27,000 signatures worldwide and which will be delivered to the Government in early 2021. The claimants will share their message to the Australian community on 14 December, with a public online panel.

For more information, visit or follow @OurIslandsOurHome on Instagram.


Notes to editors

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 Open Global Rights.

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 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.