• A delegate walks beneath the ceiling painted by Spainish artist Miquel Barcelo before a UN Human Rights Council session at UN offices in Geneva. (AFP)Source: AFP
The case frames climate change as “a human rights issue”, with First Nations people among the most vulnerable to a changing climate.
Shahni Wellington

10 Jul 2019 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2019 - 5:25 PM

If all goes to plan for a group of Torres Strait Islanders, the UN Human Rights Committee will pressure the Australian government to reduce the country's climate change emissions.

In a complaint lodged in May with the committee, seven Traditional Owners say climate change is already threatening their homes, traditions and sacred sites.

They have lodged what they describe as a "world first legal complaint against the Australian government" which alleges the country is violating their human rights by failing to address the issue.

The group also claim it is the first legal action in the world brought by inhabitants of low-lying islands against a nation-state.

Locals on the Torres Strait Islands say rising tides are washing away graves and sacred sites.

Community leaders also fear they will be forced to find a new home, if climate change continues to impact the islands.

One of the complainants, Kabay Tamu, says the UN is expected to demand a response from the Australian government later this year.

“It’s their duty of care to protect us Torres Strait Islanders up there and we feel that we haven’t been protected,” the sixth-generation Warraber man said.

“The process may take two to three years… but we are happy to wait because we’ve already been fighting. Our leaders have been fighting for a long time.”

'We lose metres of land all the time'

The islanders making the complaint have requested that Australia brings emissions at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, phases out thermal coal power stations and commits at least $20 million for seawalls on the Torres Strait Islands.

“If we have to move away, that’s colonisation all over again,” Mr Tamu said.

“The connection we have to the land and the sea ... you can’t put a price on that.”

“Every high tide, every monsoon season we get coastal erosion happening,” Mr Tamu said.

“We lose metres of land all the time, especially with high tides and severe weather, rough winds coming through. It’s been happening more often now.”

The UN will now assess if Australia's climate emission policies are adequate, and if the government is effectively stripping people of their basic human rights. 

The Australian government has received the complaint and the UN committee is likely to request a response later this year.

'Climate change is actually affecting Torres Strait Islanders right now': Marou
Torres Strait Islander musicians Marou and Busby use trip home to highlight the real impact of climate crisis on the region.
Torres Strait Islanders take climate change fury to UN
Torres Strait Islanders are going to the United Nations to accuse the Morrison government of breaching their human rights over its inaction on climate change.
Torres Strait council critical of federal government's $5m work-for-the-dole seawall election promise
Federal government funding for an extensive seawall project in the Torres Straits is inadequate to address climate change in the region, says mayor of regional councils.