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The United Nations backed the Torres Strait 8 against the Australian Government: What now?

Emma Ruben -

In 2019, a group of eight Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) Islanders lodged a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

The complainants, now known as the Torres Strait 8, claimed their lives and culture were being threatened by the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and common floods.

In September this year the United Nations Human Rights Committee found the Australian government had failed to protect Torres Strait Islanders against the adverse impacts of climate change.

While the ruling is now considered a landmark legal case, this is not the end of the battle for the Torres Strait 8.

The Australian government has 180 days from the Committee's decision to respond to the Torres Strait 8.

The legal background

The Torres Strait 8 argued before the UN's Human Rights Committee that the Australian government failed to protect Torres Strait Islanders against adverse impacts of climate change, in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Human Rights Committee, a body of 18 independent legal experts who promote the enjoyment of civil and political rights, found Australia had violated article 27, the right to culture and article 17, the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home.

How will Australia respond to the Human Rights Committee?

While the Human Rights Committee's decision marks a historic moment in climate change law, whether or not the federal government will take on their recommendations is another question.

The Human Rights Committee have made it clear full reparations should be made and remedies are owed to the Torres Strait 8.

Torres Strait Islander human rights lawyer and UN delegate of Mer Island, Sasha Purcell, said there's no telling what will happen next.

"Given that this is international law, although they (the UN Human Rights Committee) have said the complainants are entitled to full reparations, it's up to the Australian government as to how they are going to respond," she said.

"Because this is such a new concept in law and because it's setting a precedent, there's really no pathway as to what will happen next.

"The United Nations is an optional mechanism that countries can sign on to, they're not legally bound by the United Nations. They can have pressure put on them and they can be smacked on the wrist in public."

Additionally, there is no stipulation that the Australian government has to respond publicly.

Ms Purcell also questioned how the Australian government will deliver potential reparations should they agree to make them.

"Article 17 is a right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home, I don't know how you're going to provide a remedy for that," she said.

"And article 27, right to enjoy their culture, that would mean that Australia has to do everything in their power to rectify the issues that are facing the Torres Strait in relation to climate change.

"So that would mean huge amounts of funding, building infrastructure, investing in the community, it will involve a lot of work and a lot of time."

Where is the finish line for the Torres Strait 8?

While having the Committee rule in favour of the Torres Strait 8 is a huge win, there is still a long way to go.

"It sets a fantastic precedent, however the biggest challenge now is for the Australian Government to actually take on board the recommendations by the Human Rights Council and actually implement them," said Ms Purcell.

"It's fantastic news but there's still a long way to go.

"And I'm not entirely sure whether the Australian Government is even obliged to implement any of those recommendations."

On November 7, Zenadth Kes Islanders came to federal parliament in Canberra, campaigning for politicians to take action and save their homes from rising sea levels.

Although the decision by the UN Committee stands as an achievement, there is still a need for swift and meaningful climate action to be taken.

Some Zenadth Kes Islanders have already seen family members' graves wash away.

"It is a now issue," Torres Strait 8 member Uncle Ted Billy said.

"It's not all why don't we wait 20 years?

"It's now because we experience it, we live with it, we see these things."

The government has until March 2023 to respond to the Committee's ruling.


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