A group of Indigenous Australians has lodged a landmark complaint with the United Nations this week, accusing the Australian government of climate inaction, which, they allege, consequently breaches their fundamental human rights.
Eight residents from the Torres Strait Islands, a collection of low-lying islands off the north coast of Australia, claim the Morrison government’s insufficient plans to reduce emissions and failure to implement coastal defense measures has violated their basic rights to life, culture, privacy, and family.
Kabay Tamu, who lives on the island of Warraber, says rising seas are already threatening homes, burial grounds, and vital cultural sites. Future sea level rise, he added, could result in total submergence and destruction of ancestral homelands.
"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,” Tamu announced in a statement. “If climate change means we’re forced to move away and become climate refugees in our own country, I fear this will be colonization all over again. Because when you’re colonized, you’re taken away from your land, and you’re forced to stop using your language and stop practicing your culture and traditions.”
We're supporting Torres Strait Islanders to bring a world-first #climatechange case on #humanrights grounds. Add your voice: tell Australia's PM to act on climate now. https://t.co/kzKGgzz0B1#OurIslandsOurHomepic.twitter.com/ICG6cWO67j— ClientEarth (@ClientEarth) May 12, 2019
The claimants, supported legally by non-profit ClientEarth and 350.org Australia, are also asking the government to reduce emissions by at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, achieve net zero emission before 2050, phase out thermal coal, and commit $20 million for long-term and emergency erosion measures.
A ruling on the case by the UN Human Rights Committee is expected to take up to three years.
Glen Klatovsky, CEO of 350.org Australia, told Global Citizen that while the UN cannot force Australia to take action, he hopes the weight of their involvement will place international pressure on Australia to realize its obligations to its citizens.
"[The UN] will provide an additional lever for global pressure on Australia to improve its performance,” he stated. “The UN Climate Summit in September would provide the next most likely opportunity for other nations to question Australia's commitment to the rights of its own citizens. The case is likely to conclude in 2021. By then, we hope many other nations will have taken additional steps under the Paris agreement, ratcheting up their performance and then looking to recalcitrants.”
The complaint by the islanders is the first time a climate change case founded on human rights abuses has been presented against the Australian government. It also marks the first ever lawsuit by residents of a low-lying island against a country.
Despite signing the Paris agreement — which requires signatories to take concerted action to slow the warming of the planet — Australia remains one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita. The nation has witnessed emissions increases each year over the past four years.
The Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) Sea and Land Council, the main body representing the Torres Strait region, has urged members of the Australian government to visit the islands and witness the destruction increasing emissions has on Australia’s environment.
"The Australian government needs to act, and quickly,"GBK chairman and traditional land owner Ned David said in a statement. "We extend an invitation to Australia's next Prime Minister … to visit our islands, see the situation for themselves and commit to protecting First Nation peoples on the climate frontline."