The Australian Government has formally responded to a complaint by a Torres Strait Islander group to the United Nations accusing Australia of neglecting their legal responsibility to human rights, claiming the complaint should be dismissed.

In May 2019, eight Torres Strait Islanders from the far north low-lying archipelago lodged a complaint to the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva recognising the threat climate change had upon their ability to live on their ancestral lands.

As it stands, rising sea-levels already threaten homes, burial grounds and sacred sites in the Torres Strait. Many residents are concerned they will see the islands submerge in their lifetime.

It was the first climate change litigation brought against the Australian Federal Government on the basis of human rights in Australian history and the first legal action, in the world, brought by inhabitants of low-lying islands against a nation state.

The Australian Government has argued the complaint should be rejected as it is based upon future risks as opposed to what is occurring now. They argued because Australia is not the main or only contributor to global warming, under human rights law, action on climate change is not a legal responsibility.

One of the eight Torres Strait Islanders who lodged the complaint is Daniel Billy. Billy is a Warraber Island man from the Kulkalgal Nation in the central Torres Strait.

“In our culture, it’s the responsibility of those alive today to look after our traditional way of life for future generations. Our Kulkalgal Elders say we must look after our land and sea for our children and their children,” he said.

“We can’t wait around any longer—the Government needs to take action in the present before rising seas mean our island and our culture is lost.”

In their legal response to the complaint, Australian Government lawyers dismissed claims that climate change impacts were already present.

Sophie Marjanac, Australian climate lawyer with environmental legal charity ClientEarth, is representing the Islanders in this complaint.

Marjanac expressed her disappointment saying it was “shameful that Indigenous communities on Australia’s climate frontline are being told that the risk of climate change to their human rights is merely a ‘future hypothetical’ issue, when scientists are clear these impacts will happen in coming decades”.

“My clients are watching as their traditional lands, their homes, their sacred sites and burial grounds are being eroded by the steadily encroaching waves,” Marjanac said.

“Climate change risk is foreseeable and only preventable through immediate action in the present. States like Australia have legal duties to protect the human rights of their citizens.

“Twenty-eight years after Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo changed Commonwealth law to recognise the Traditional Owners of Australia, we need the Government to recognise the rights of today’s Torres Strait Islanders to continue practising their culture.”

Torres Strait Islanders are now required to respond to the Government’s rejection by October this year. The Islanders’ claim is strongly supported by Gur A Baradharaw Kod Sea and Land Council Torres Strait Islander Corporation and environmental group, 350.org Australia.

In 2019, Torres Strait Islanders called for the Government to reduce national emissions by 65 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, with a commitment to achieving zero by 2050 and investment in long-term solutions to ensure the safety of the islands and their communities.

Torres Strait Islanders also personally invited Prime Minister Scott Morrison to visit communities to witness the effects of climate change. Morrison declined the invitation via email.

Not long after declining the invitation, the Australian Government announced funds for emergency coast defences, however, did not list climate change as a major contributor to the need for such defences.

An online campaign has been launched to support a petition to the Prime Minister and can be accessed online through the Instagram page @OurIslandsOurHome.

By Rachael Knowles