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.”
“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.
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“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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