In a move that could set a new global precedent for how front-line communities demand ambitious government action on the climate crisis, Torres Strait Islanders submitted a landmark complaint to the United Nations on Monday charging that Australia's inaction on the crisis violates the indigenous group's human rights.
"We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities who practice culture and traditions."
—Kabay Tamu, claimant
The islands—located off the northern coast of mainland Australia and home to a portion of the Great Barrier Reef—are increasingly under threat from the impacts of human-caused global warming, particularly rising seas.
Eight Islanders backed by the region's land and sea council Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) and attorneys from the nonprofit ClientEarth argued to the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee that the government is failing to protect their rights to culture, a family, and life guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a key multilateral treaty.
"We're currently seeing the effects of climate change on our islands daily, with rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion, and inundation of our communities," Kabay Tamu, a claimant and sixth-generation Warraber man, said in a statement from 350 Australia. "We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities who practice culture and traditions."
The Islanders named in the complaint, who are Australian citizens from four different islands, asked the U.N. committee "to find that international human rights law means that Australia must meet the 1.5 degree temperature target of the Paris agreement by increasing its emission reduction target to at least 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, going net zero by 2050, and phasing out coal." They also seek funding for sea walls and other infrastructure.
John H. Knox, a law professor at Wake Forest University who served as the first U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment from 2012 to 2018, explained in a series of tweets Monday that "what makes the Torres Strait claim a potentially groundbreaking precedent is that it's the first of these cases to bring a petition to one of the U.N. human rights treaty bodies."
So this case gives the Human Rights Committee its first chance to give specific application to its general statement, by assessing and explaining what Australia should do to protect the human rights of the Torres Strait islanders. 10/12
— John H Knox (@JohnHKnox) May 12, 2019
"It is also the first time that the Australian government—which has failed to meet emissions reduction targets and continues to approve embattled coal mine projects—has faced climate change litigation that asserts a human rights violation," noted the New York Times.
"While the United Nations cannot force Australia to take action," the Times added, "those leading the case say they hope it will apply pressure on governments around the world to protect the rights of marginalized citizens whose culture is tethered to a particular place, and for whom dispossession could reignite the trauma of colonization."
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This first-of-its-kind climate justice case "is part of an epic fight to hold the carbon barons accountable for wrecking the one planet we've got," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose Australian branch is supporting the Islanders' claim.
"The Torres Strait Islands have been settled for millennia, but if the Australian government continues on its present course," he warned, "they may not last the century."
"This is our mother." In a landmark claim, Torres Strait Islanders argue that Australia, by failing to take adequate steps to reduce carbon #emissions, has violated their fundamental right to maintain their culture. #ourislandsourhome #climatechange https://t.co/bLkx14ZHgm
— 350Australia (@350Australia) May 12, 2019
"If climate change means we're forced to move away and become climate refugees in our own country, I fear this will be colonization all over again," Tamu said. "Because when you're colonized, you're taken away from your land and you're forced to stop using your language and stop practicing your culture and traditions."
To garner support for the case, claimants launched the "Our Islands, Our Home" campaign, circulating an online petition that calls on the prime minister to commit the Australian government to directing necessary resources to the people of the Torres Straight Islands and passing laws that cut emissions in line with the country's goals under the Paris agreement.
The campaign's website, made by 350 Australia, hosts the petition and details how "climate change is putting life on these islands at risk."
Advancing seas are already threatening homes, as well as damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites. Many Islanders 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.
Rising sea temperatures are also affecting the health of marine environments throughout the Torres Strait, through coral bleaching and ocean acidification. If the reefs and the marine life that depends on them are damaged, the Islander way of life could also be at risk.
"This is our home," Islanders declare in the first of a series of videos produced for the campaign.
We're supporting Torres Strait Islanders to bring a world-first #climatechange case on #humanrights grounds. Add your voice: tell Australia's PM to act on climate now. https://t.co/kzKGgzz0B1 #OurIslandsOurHome pic.twitter.com/ICG6cWO67j
— ClientEarth (@ClientEarth) May 12, 2019
"The Australian government needs to act, and quickly," said GBK chairman and Iama (Yam Island) traditional owner Ned David. "We extend an invitation to Australia's next prime minister, whoever that is after this week's federal election, to visit our islands, see the situation for themselves, and commit to protecting First Nation peoples on the climate front line."