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The United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled in favour of eight Torres Strait Islanders, who claim Australia’s climate inaction violated their human rights.
Australia violated Torres Strait Islanders’ rights to enjoy culture and family life, UN Committee finds
23 September 2022
GENEVA (23 September 2022) – In a ground-breaking decision, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has found that Australia’s failure to adequately protect indigenous Torres Islanders against adverse impacts of climate change violated their rights to enjoy their culture and be free from arbitrary interferences with their private life, family and home.
The Committee today issued its Decision after examining a joint complaint filed by eight Australian nationals and six of their children. They are all indigenous inhabitants of Boigu, Poruma, Warraber and Masig, four small, low-lying islands in Australia’s Torres Strait region. The Islanders claimed their rights had been violated as Australia failed to adapt to climate change by, inter alia, upgrading seawalls on the islands and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“This decision marks a significant development as the Committee has created a pathway for individuals to assert claims where national systems have failed to take appropriate measures to protect those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of their human rights,” Committee member Hélène Tigroudja said.
In their complaint brought to the Committee, the Islanders claimed that changes in weather patterns have direct harmful consequences on their livelihood, their culture and traditional way of life. The Islanders indicated that severe flooding caused by the tidal surge in recent years has destroyed family graves and left human remains scattered across their islands. They argued that maintaining ancestral graveyards and visiting and communicating with deceased relatives are at the heart of their cultures. In addition, the most important ceremonies, such as coming-of-age and initiation ceremonies, are only culturally meaningful if performed in the community’s native lands.
The Islanders also argued that changes in climate with heavy rainfall and storms have degraded the land and trees and have consequently reduced the amount of food available from traditional fishing and farming. On Masig Island, for example, the rising sea level has caused saltwater to seep into the soil and coconut trees to become diseased, subsequently killing off the fruit, and its coconut water, which are part of the Islanders’ traditional diet.
The Committee took into account the Islanders’ close, spiritual connection with their traditional lands, and the dependence of their cultural integrity on the health of their surrounding ecosystems. It therefore found that Australia’s failure to take timely and adequate measures to protect the indigenous Islanders against adverse climate change impacts led to the violation of their rights to enjoy their own culture and to be free from arbitrary interferences with their private life, family and home.
“States that fail to protect individuals under their jurisdiction from the adverse effects of climate change may be violating their human rights under international law,” Tigroudja added.
In the same decision, the Committee indicated that despite Australia’s series of actions, such as the construction of new seawalls on the four islands that are expected to be completed by 2023, additional timely and appropriate measures were required to avert a risk to the Islanders’ lives, since without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change may expose individuals to a violation of their right to life under the Covenant.
As remedies, the Committee asked Australia to compensate the indigenous Islanders for the harm suffered, engage in meaningful consultations with their communities to assess their needs, and take measures to continue to secure the communities’ safe existence on their respective islands.
In my opinion this action brings utter discredit to the United Nations Human Rights Commission – one of the few UN bodies I hoped might sometimes still contribute to human wellbeing.
The Torres Strait, where the islanders live, is subject to some of the most ferocious weather on the planet.
In 1899, 123 years ago, the islands were smashed by Cyclone Mahina. This cyclone was claimed to have caused a storm surge 13m / 42ft, at least 14ft higher than Hurricane Katrina, with a central pressure claimed to be as low as 880HPa, and as at the time of writing of the report in 2019, was still claimed to hold the record for the largest storm surge ever recorded from a typhoon, cyclone or hurricane.
There is nothing permanent about the structure of such loose sand or coral aggregate islands, they change shape every storm. The region where the islands are located is lashed by ferocious storms and cyclones pretty much every year. Such storms have been recorded since the late 1800s (Cyclone Mahina), and have likely occurred since the Torres Strait formed 12,000 years ago, when rising sea levels during the early Holocene drowned the land bridge between New Guinea and Australia.
To suggest that Australia’s 1% annual contribution to global CO2 rise has somehow caused the changes to island geography locals are experiencing, which the UNHRC ruled were Australia’s fault, in my opinion is an utter absurdity.