A group of eight Torres Strait Islanders, Australian nationals, and six of their children submitted a petition against the Australian government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. 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 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 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. The petition alleges that Australia is violating the plaintiffs’ fundamental human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) due to the government’s failure to address climate change. This petition represents the first climate change legal action in Australia that makes an argument based on a violation of human rights. It also constitutes the first legal action filed with a UN body by inhabitants of low-lying islands against a national government for inaction on climate change.
The plaintiffs inhabit a group of islands off the northern tip of Queensland, Australia, between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea. These low-lying island communities are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts including sea level rise, storm surge, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification. According to materials released by the plaintiffs, the complaint alleges that Australia’s insufficient action on climate change has violated the following rights under the ICCPR: Article 27 (the right to culture), Article 17 (the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home), and Article 6 (the right to life). The complaint further argues these violations stem from both insufficient targets and plans to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and inadequate funding for coastal defense and resilience measures on the islands, such as seawalls.
On August 13, 2020, Australia asked the Committee to dismiss the petition.
On September 23, 2022, the U.N. Human Rights Committee 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 took into account the Islanders’ 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. 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.