September 30, 2020

Torres Strait Islander group submits response in historic climate case

Claimants call for global solidarity while submitting a response to the UN, following the Australian Government’s attempt to get the case dismissed.

In a historic climate case, Torres Strait Islander claimants have submitted an official reply to the Australian Government’s attempt to get the case dismissed.

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.

Background to the case

Eight individuals from across the Torres Strait have 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 2020, it was revealed that the Australian Government requested 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 2020, the eight claimants submitted a formal reply to the UN.

They argued 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 Island 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.

Australia’s continued climate inaction

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, one of ClientEarth’s climate lawyers, is acting for the claimants. Sophie 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?”

Call for global solidarity

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.

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,” Yessie added.

The #OurIslandsOurHome campaign has already gathered more than 30,000 petition signatures, which the claimants plan to deliver to the Government in November.