Australia faces 'world-first' climate change human rights case

Torres Strait Islanders say Australia's failure to tackle climate change puts their homeland and culture in danger.

    An indigenous man blows into a shell as a man from the Torres Strait Islands wearing traditional dress performs during a ceremony in Sydney [File: David Gray/Reuters]
    An indigenous man blows into a shell as a man from the Torres Strait Islands wearing traditional dress performs during a ceremony in Sydney [File: David Gray/Reuters]

    Indigenous people from the low-lying Torres Strait Islands off Australia's northeast coast will file a landmark complaint with the United Nations on Monday, accusing the government of breaching their human rights by failing to tackle climate change.

    The eight Torres Strait Islanders will tell the UN Human Rights Committee in the Swiss city of Geneva that rising seas caused by global warming are threatening their homelands and culture, according to lawyers representing the group.

    ClientEarth, an environmental law non-profit organisation that is backing the case, said it was the first to be lodged with the UN linking alleged government inaction on climate change to the violation of human rights.

    The islanders say Australia's government has no policies in place to meet the country's emissions reduction target and is pushing the interests of the fossil fuel industries.

    In their complaint, the islanders ask the UN to find that international human rights law requires Australia to reduce its emissions to at least 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

    The country should become carbon neutral by 2050, phasing out its use and export of coal completely, they argue.

    Human rights issue

    The complaint also demands Australia set aside 20m Australian dollars ($14m) for emergency infrastructure such as sea walls to protect the islands' residents from rising seas.

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    "We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities who practise culture and traditions," said Kabay Tamu, one of the petitioners.

    "Climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue," said Sophie Marjanac, the lead lawyer on the case. 

    "Australia's continued failure to build infrastructure to protect the islands, and to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, constitutes a clear violation of the islanders' rights to culture, family and life," she added.

    The complaint is being lodged just days before Australia holds national elections in which climate change has become a key issue. The conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been accused of dragging its feet on emission-reduction efforts and is trailing in the opinion polls.

    John Knox, a law professor at Wake Forest University in the United States and a former UN special rapporteur on human rights, called the islanders' claim "potentially groundbreaking".

    The UN committee late last year determined that each country's duty to safeguard human rights also meant protection against environmental harm, including climate change, Knox wrote on Twitter.

    "This case gives the Human Rights Committee its first chance to give specific application" to that determination "by assessing and explaining what Australia should do to protect the human rights of the Torres Strait Islanders", he said.

    While the UN committee's rulings are non-binding, "its decision may increase pressure on Australia to do the right thing", he added.

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    SOURCE: News agencies