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Australia should compensate Torres Strait Islanders for climate crisis failure, UN says

A general view from the jetty on Boigu Island on March 26, 2021 in Boigu Island in the Torres Strait
A United Nations committee has found Australia failed to protect Torres Strait Islanders from the effects of climate change. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

A United Nations committee has found the Australian government has failed to adequately protect Torres Strait islanders, and violated their right to enjoy their culture and lives, by failing to act on the climate crisis.

The landmark decision found they should be compensated.

The decision by the UN human rights committee comes more than three years after eight adults and six children from four low-lying islands off the northern coast of Australia lodged a complaint against the Morrison government, claiming it had failed to take adequate action to cut emissions or pursue proper adaptation measures.

In what the committee described as a groundbreaking decision, it found the government had “violated their rights to enjoy their culture and be free from arbitrary interferences with their private life, family and home”.

It asked the Australian government to compensate the Indigenous people from Boigu, Poruma, Warraber and Masig islands for the harm they have suffered, to engage in meaningful consultations to assess their needs and take measures to secure their communities’ safe existence.

The complaint is one of a growing number of climate cases being brought around the world on human rights grounds.

The islanders’ said their rights had been violated by Australia’s inadequate emissions reduction targets and plans and its failure to fund adequate coastal defence and resilience measures on the islands, such as seawalls.

Yessie Mosby, a Kulkalgal man, traditional owner on Masig and one of the claimants, said his ancestors would be “rejoicing knowing that Torres Strait Islander voices are being heard throughout the world through this landmark case”.

“This morning when I woke up on Masig, I saw that the sky was full of frigatebirds. In my culture, we take this as a sign from my ancestors that we would be hearing good news very soon about this case,” he said in a statement.

“Climate change affects our way of life everyday. This win gives us hope that we can protect our island homes, culture and traditions for our kids and future generations to come.”

The islanders claimed that changes in weather patterns linked to an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations had direct harmful consequences on their livelihood, their culture and traditional way of life. Severe flooding caused by tidal surges in recent years had destroyed graves and left human remains scattered across their islands. Maintaining ancestral graveyards and visiting and communicating with deceased relatives was at the heart of their cultures, they said.

They said heavy rainfall and storms had degraded the land and trees and reduced the amount of food available from traditional fishing and farming. On Masig Island, rising sea levels have led to saltwater seeping into the soil, causing coconut trees to become diseased and killing off the fruit.

The committee said it took into account the islanders’ close, spiritual connection with their lands, and the “dependence of their cultural integrity on the health of their surrounding ecosystems”.

Committee member Hélène Tigroudja said the decision was a significant development in its decision making as the committee had “created a pathway for individuals to assert claims where national systems have failed to take appropriate measures to protect those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of their human rights”.

“States that fail to protect individuals under their jurisdiction from the adverse effects of climate change may be violating their human rights under international law,” she said.

The UN human rights committee is a body of 18 legal experts that sits in Geneva. The committee monitors compliance with the international covenant on civil and political rights. There is no enforcement mechanism under the covenant but states generally comply with the committee’s findings.

It found Australia had violated article 27, the right to culture and article 17, the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home, but not article six, the right to life.

Australia’s attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, said the new Labor government was committed to working with Torres Strait islanders on climate change, and stressed the complaint was lodged under the previous government.

He said the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, the Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, and the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, travelled to the Torres Strait shortly after being elected in May to talk with elders and owners about the impact of climate change.

“The Australian government engages in good faith with the human rights committee in relation to any complaint received,” he said. “[It] is considering the committee’s views and will provide its response in due course.”

Lawyer Sophie Marjanac, from the environmental legal charity ClientEarth that acted for the islanders, said the case was “a victory for all peoples who are the most vulnerable to runaway climate change”.

She said it showed nations could “no longer hide behind the myth that climate change is a collective problem and that they are free of legal obligation”, and the Australian government must take decisive steps to drastically cut emissions and invest in adaptation measures in the Torres Strait.

“This case opens the door for further legal actions and compensation claims by other climate affected people, and will give hope to those fighting for loss and damage at this year’s international climate talks in Egypt,” Marjanac said.

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