Environmental lawyers take Torres Straits human rights/climate change case to UN in world first

ClientEarth brings pioneering case against Australian government

A pioneering human rights case against the Australian government over its “inaction on climate change” has been taken to the United Nations by indigenous islanders and environmental law non-profit ClientEarth.

“The Australian government needs to act, and quickly”

The complaint, believed to be the first of its kind, alleges that Australia has failed in its “legal human rights obligations” by failing to take “adequate action to reduce emissions” or take the “proper adaptation measures” needed to protect the Torres Strait Islanders, the first nation inhabitants of low-lying islands off Australia’s north coast.

It follows another ground-breaking climate case that is playing out in the country: the lawsuit brought against the trustees of the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust (REST) last year, which claims that the A$51bn (€32bn) fund has breached its duties on climate risk.

The Torres Straits case was lodged on May 13 with the United Nations Human Rights Committee – the same week of an election that has seen Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition come close to a majority in a blow for those predicting that the more climate conscious Labor party would win.

The UN’s Geneva-based committee, which is comprised of 18 legal experts, is responsible for monitoring state’s compliance with the world’s oldest human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The islanders allege that Australia has violated that accord, particularly the right to culture (Article 27), its right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home (Article 17) and the right to life (Article 6).They are calling on the government to:

  • Commit at least A$20m for emergency measures such as sea walls and sustained investment in long-term adaptation measures to ensure the islands can continue to be inhabited;
  • Reduce its emissions by at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030 and going net zero before 2050; and,
  • Phase out thermal coal, both for domestic electricity generation and export markets.

Advancing sea levels are already threatening the islanders’ homes, as well as damaging burial grounds and sacred sites.

RI was told that a decision from the UN body could take up to three years but it is likely that the Committee will request a response from the Australian government later this year.

The committee, however, cannot force Australia to comply with any decision it reaches on the case.

Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth’s lead lawyer for the case and who previously lived on the Torres Straits, described the islanders as being on the “climate front-line”.

She added that there is “very limited protection for human rights under Australian law”, that is why it had to “go above Australia and to the UN”.

“The Australian government needs to act, and quickly,” said Ned David, chairman and lama of Gur A Baradharaw, the Torres Straits’ leading land and sea council. “We extend an invitation to Australia’s next Prime Minister, whoever that is after this week’s federal election, to visit our islands, see the situation for themselves and commit to protecting First Nation peoples on the climate frontline”.

RI covered Australia as part of its latest ESG Country Snapshot series.