Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to visit the lands of the Torres Strait Islander group lodging a complaint against the Australian Government to the UN Human Rights Committee for human rights breaches.
An invitation was extended to the Prime Minister in September asking him to see with his own eyes the devastation already being caused by climate change in the Torres Strait’s low-lying islands.
Mr Morrison declined the invitation via email. Minister for Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor also declined to visit.
The letter to the Prime Minister described how traditional burial grounds and sacred sites are being swamped and washed away due to rising sea levels and coastline erosion.
Infrastructure including sea walls, flood defences and freshwater wells are also being breached and damaged as a result of climate events.
“We’re very disappointed the Prime Minister will not visit our communities. Just like those battling bushfires on the mainland, our islands are on Australia’s climate frontline,” said Yessie Mosby, a member of the complainant group.
This comes as fires ravage over 1.6 million hectares of New South Wales in some of the most devastating fires in Australia since Black Saturday in 2009.
“This is not a problem for another country to sort out. Bushfires, floods, droughts, extreme heat and in our case rising seas – this is the reality of living in Australia now,” Mr Mosby said.
In May this year, eight Torres Strait Islanders brought the first climate change litigation against the Commonwealth Government based on human rights.
The complaint claims the failed action of the Australian Government to reduce emissions or construct proper adaptive infrastructure on the Torres Strait Islands is a breach of Australia’s human rights obligations – rights to culture, family and life.
Assisted by environmental law non-profit, ClientEarth, and barristers from London’s 20 Essex Street Chambers, it is also the first litigation globally to be brought by low-lying island residents against a nation state.
Lead lawyer on the case, ClientEarth climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac agreed it’s disappointing the Prime Minister has refused the invitation to visit.
“The [Prime Minister] said that his schedule wouldn’t allow him to go, but when we look at how his government has responded to the concerns of people on the climate frontline both in Australia and across the Pacific, you’d be forgiven for thinking he is ignoring them,” Ms Marjanac said.
“Just as offering thoughts and prayers to bushfire victims is not enough, neither is ignoring the situation facing Torres Strait Islanders.”
Ms Marjanac said after submitting the complain in May, the Torres Strait Islander group is now waiting for the Federal Government’s official response.
“We’re expecting [the response] should arrive before Christmas. Once Canberra responds, the claimants can expect a reply from the Human Rights Committee next year.”
The climate lawyer said this litigation is part of a wave of climate litigation globally.
“The Torres Strait Islanders involved have been taking heart in the fact that there are climate-vulnerable Indigenous peoples the world over bringing similar litigation.”
By Hannah Cross