September 23, 2022

Torres Strait Islanders win historic human rights legal fight against Australia

A group of eight Torres Strait Islander people have made international legal history, after the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian Government is violating its human rights obligations to them through climate change inaction.

The landmark decision delivered by the Committee today agreed with the complaint filed in 2019, obliging the Government to pay adequate compensation to the claimants and do whatever it takes to ensure the safe existence of the islands. 

The complaint is the first legal action brought by climate-vulnerable inhabitants of low-lying islands against a nation state, and the decision has set several ground-breaking precedents for international human rights law.

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

This morning when I woke up on Masig, I saw that the sky was full of frigate birds. In my culture, we take this as a sign from my ancestors that we would be hearing good news very soon about this case.

“I know that our ancestors are rejoicing knowing that Torres Strait Islander voices are being heard throughout the world through this landmark case. Climate change affects our way of life everyday. This win gives us hope that we can protect our island homes, culture and traditions for our kids and future generations to come.

In its decision the Committee agreed with the complaint stating that:
  • Climate change was indeed currently impacting the claimants’ daily lives;
  • To the extent that their rights are being violated; and,
  • That Australia was breaching its human rights obligations to the people of the Torres Strait by failing to cut its greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough.
  • The committee majority found that 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 also found that the Government had violated their right to life.

The decision marks the first time an international tribunal has 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 at risk from climate impacts.

Australian climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac, with environmental legal charity ClientEarth, acted for the claimants. Marjanac said:

“This is an historic victory for climate justice. It is a victory for all peoples who are the most vulnerable to runaway climate change. This case opens the door for further legal actions and compensation claims by other climate affected people, and will give hope to those fighting for loss and damage at this year’s international climate talks in Egypt.

“The Australian Government must act on this decision and take decisive steps to protect the islands of the Torres Strait and their ‘Ailan Kastom’. Australia must seriously invest in adaptation and also drastically reduce its national emissions. Nations can no longer hide behind the myth that climate change is a collective problem and that they are free of legal obligation. They must act, now.”

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 to address the findings of the OHCHR. A petition with more than 47,000 signatures will be presented by Torres Strait Eight members to the Australian Government at Parliament House later this year.

Yessie added: “This is not the end – we must hold the Australian government accountable and keep fossil fuels in the ground to protect our island homes.”

Another claimant, Kabay Tamu, a  Warraberalgal man from the Kulkalgal nation said:

“I’m lost for words. I feel like a huge weight has lifted off my shoulders. I’m so proud and appreciative of everyone involved from the very start to now. This has given us Torres Strait Islanders more solid ground to stand on now. At this very moment I can’t think of anything to say but thank you and we Zenadh Kes thanks everyone involved and who supported us in any way. Mina koeyma eso.”

Claimant Nazareth Fauid said:

“This is a happy moment for me. I can feel the heartbeat of my people from the past, to the present and the future. Our stories are echoing across the world.

“This is about protecting our culture and identity. Our people living in the low-lying islands have been struggling and suffering because of climate change and the decisions of others.

“We are now celebrating history in the making. This is for future generations so that they won’t be disconnected from their island homes of the Torres Strait.”

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.


Media contacts:
  • ClientEarth – Martin Watters +44 (0)7 432 107 787
  • For interviews with members of the Torres Strait Eight
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. 


Timeline of the legal complaint:
  • December 2020: The current and former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment submit a joint amicus curiae brief backing the complaint. 
  • August 2021: The Government submits an official reply to the UN, repeating claims that the complaint should be dismissed. 
  • July 2022: Following a change in Government, new Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen meets with claimants during a visit to the Torres Strait.
  • September 2022: The Human Rights Committee in Geneva deliver their decision.


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.