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Torres Strait Islanders filed climate change complaint with UN



A group of residents of Australia’s Torres Strait Islands has filed a landmark complaint with the United Nations against the Australian government, alleging that a failure to address climate change violates their fundamental human rights.

The case was lodged with the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva on Monday by eight natives from different parts of the low-lying islands and claims that rising sea levels and climate change are affecting their homeland. United Kingdom-based environmental law non-profit ClientEarth, who helped lodge the complaint, says it is the first climate change litigation against the Australian government on the basis of human rights.

“Their case asserts that by failing to take adequate action to reduce emissions or to build proper adaptation measures on the islands, Australia is failing its legal human rights obligations to Torres Strait people,” ClientEarth said in a statement on Sunday.

Torres Strait Islanders are part of Australia’s indigenous population and live on several small islands between Australia’s northern tip and Papua New Guinea. According to Australia’s 2016 census, there are roughly 4,500 citizens on the islands, though many more live on the mainland.

A satellite image shows the Torres Strait and accompanying islands that are scattered between the northern tip of Australia and the south coast of Papua New Guinea.
Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The complaint alleges that the Morrison government has not done enough to protect the islands and their inhabitants from climate change, and it urges the UN committee to pressure Australia to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030 and phase out its coal usage.

“We’re currently seeing the effects of climate change on our islands daily, with rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion and inundation of our communities,” Kabay Tamu, one of the islanders who lodged the complaint and sixth-generation Warraber man, said in a statement. “We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional well-being of our communities who practice culture and traditions.”

Read more: What Earth might look like in 80 years if we’re lucky — and if we’re unlucky

An accompanying online petition hosted by grassroots climate action group calls on Australia’s prime minister to support the Torres Strait people with at least $AU20 million ($14 million) for emergency resources to protect themselves against climate change and encourages the passage of more comprehensive climate change laws.

“If climate change means we’re forced to move away and become climate refugees in our own country, I fear this will be colonization all over again,” Tamu said. “Because when you’re colonized, you’re taken away from your land and you’re forced to stop using your language and stop practicing your culture and traditions.”

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