Legal experts appointed by the United Nations have supported the arguments of the Torres Strait eight, who are claiming the Australian Government’s sustained inaction on climate change is a breach of their human rights.

Lodged in May 2019, the complaint claims the continued inaction on greenhouse gas mitigation and failure to help the people of the Torres Strait means Australia is failing its legal human rights obligations to the claimants. 

The Federal Government has since responded to the complaint, stating the case should be rejected as it concerns future risks rather than the impacts being felt now.

Government lawyers said because the country is not the main or only contributor to global warming, it is not legally responsible to act against climate change under human rights law.

The current and former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment have submitted an independent legal brief to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva in support of the group’s complaint.

In their joint submission, Professor David Boyd and Professor John Knox said the complaint could set a global precedent.

Dr Boyd, the current UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment and Associate Professor of Law, Policy and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, said human rights depend on a healthy environment, which includes a safe climate.   

“The effects of the climate crisis are being felt right now by those on the climate frontline, such as residents of smalls islands, but they don’t have a seat at the table,” he said.   

“By failing to accept that climate change is affecting the Torres Strait Islander people, failing to substantially reduce emissions, and failing to facilitate adaptation to the changes, the Australian Government isn’t meeting their human rights obligations.”   

The Human Rights Committee in Geneva is expected to consider the brief from the two legal experts when it reviews the complaint and the responses of the parties.

Sophie Marjanac, the ClientEarth lawyer acting on behalf of the claimants, said the Torres Strait Islander people are seeing the effects of climate change firsthand, year after year.  

“The Australian Government has a legal duty to recognise the devastating impact climate change is having on the human rights of Torres Strait residents and should be taking the appropriate measures to protect them,” she said.   

The claimants shared their message with the Australian community on Monday night via a live streamed virtual town hall. 

The night saw a panel of storytelling and gave those that attended an opportunity to hear directly from the frontline, through spoken word performances and representatives speaking about their connection to the islands and the impact of climate change on the communities that call the Torres Strait home.

For more information on the ‘Our Islands, Our Home’ campaign, visit: https://ourislandsourhome.com.au/.

By Darby Ingram