The Torres Strait Islands are under constant threat from sea level riseTorres Strait Islanders, fearing their home and culture will disappear under rising seas, want the Australian government held accountable for climate impacts. Photo credit: Brad Marsellos via Flickr

By Dana Drugmand

A group of indigenous Australians have brought a legal complaint against the Australian government for violating their human rights by contributing to climate change.

The complaint, filed by indigenous people from the Torres Strait Islands to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, alleges the government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the world’s oldest human rights treaty. It is the first climate change case in Australia based on human rights claims and it is believed to be the first in the world brought by residents of low-lying islands against a national government.

The Torres Strait Islands are located between the northern tip of Queensland, Australia and the southern edge of Papua New Guinea. Climate change threatens the islands, which experience regular flooding because of sea level rise, and the islanders’ sacred cultural sites.

Fearing that their home and way of life could disappear, the Torres Strait Islanders are seeking legal recourse. Eight islanders from four different islands submitted their complaint on Monday. The Human Rights Committee monitors nations’ compliance with the ICCPR. The islanders’ complaint alleges that Australia violated their rights under the treaty, including the right to life and culture and the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home.

“Climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue. The predicted impacts of climate change in the Torres Strait, including the inundation of ancestral homelands, would be catastrophic for its people,” said Sophie Marjanac, attorney with the nonprofit environmental law firm ClientEarth, which is representing the islanders.

A decision by the Human Rights Committee would not be legally binding, but could exert significant moral pressure on the Australian government to comply.

The Torres Strait region’s land and sea council, known as GBK, is supporting the claim and has launched a national petition calling on the Australian government to increase climate adaptation and mitigation. It calls on the government to commit $20 million to emergency resiliency projects like sea walls, invest long-term in adaptation measures, reduce emissions by at least 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It calls for  achieving net zero emissions before 2050 and phasing out coal for domestic electricity and export.

The Australian government has adopted an emissions reduction target of 26-28 percent by 2030 but lacks a concrete plan to meet the target. The government has continued to promote fossil fuel projects, particularly coal and coal seam gas. Last month, the government green-lighted groundwater management plans for the controversial Adani coal mine. A court in New South Wales ruled against another proposed coal mine due to its impact on climate change in February.

The Torres Strait Islanders’ case is part of a growing global climate justice movement seeking to hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable. The first successful climate lawsuit came when Dutch citizens won a ruling in 2015 compelling the government of the Netherlands live up to its promised emissions reductions. That case inspired others, including the landmark youth-led case Juliana v. United States. The Philippines Commission on Human Rights is also investigating the role of 47 fossil fuel corporations in causing climate change and potentially violating human rights. Another Pacific island nation, Vanuatu, has indicated interest in pursuing climate liability litigation against fossil fuel companies and the governments that support them.

According to ClientEarth, the Torres Strait Islanders’ claim could take up to three years to resolve. If successful, it would be the first decision from an international body finding that nation states have a duty to reduce their emissions under human rights law.

“The Torres Strait Islands have been settled for millennia, but if the Australian government continues on its present course they may not last the century,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate justice organization, which is also supporting the action. “This lawsuit is part of an epic fight to hold the carbon barons accountable for wrecking the one planet we’ve got.”

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