Indigenous residents of low-lying islands off northern Australia will submit a landmark complaint with the United Nations (UN) on Monday accusing the government of violating their human rights by failing to tackle climate change.
The Torres Strait Islanders will tell the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva that rising seas caused by global warming are threatening their homelands and culture, lawyers representing the group said.
The lawyers, from the non-profit ClientEarth, said the case was the first of its kind to be lodged with the UN equating government inaction on climate change to a human rights violation.
In their complaint, the islanders ask the UN to find that international human rights law requires Australia to reduce its emissions to at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030.
The country should become carbon neutral by 2050, phasing out its use and export of coal completely, they say.
The complaint also demands the government allocate Aus$20 million (US$14 million) for emergency infrastructure like sea walls to protect Torres Strait communities.
“Advancing seas are already threatening homes, as well as damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites,” the claimants said in a statement.
“Many Islanders are worried that their islands could quite literally disappear in their lifetimes without urgent action.”
Kabay Tamu of Warraber island said that his community had a “right to practice our culture in our traditional homeland”.
“Our culture starts here on the land. It is how we are connected with the land and the sea. You wash away the land and it is like a piece of us you are taking away,” he said in a statement.
The complaint is being lodged just days before Australian elections in which the conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison trails in opinion polls.
Climate change has been a key campaign issue, with Morrison’s government accused of dragging its feet on emission reduction efforts while backing the expansion of coal mining.
John Knox, a law professor at Wake Forest University in the US and a former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, called the Torres Islanders claim “potentially ground-breaking”.
The UN committee late last year determined that states’ duty to safeguard human rights also meant protection against environmental harm, including climate change, Knox said on Twitter.
“This case gives the Human Rights Committee its first chance to give specific application” to that determination “by assessing and explaining what Australia should do to protect the human rights of the Torres Strait islanders,” he said.
While the UN committee’s rulings are non-binding, “its decision may increase pressure on Australia to do the right thing”, he said.