Torres Strait Islanders ask UN to hold Australia to account on climate ‘human rights abuses’


Kristen Lyons, The University of Queensland

Climate change threatens Australia in many different ways, and can devastate rural and urban communities alike. For Torres Strait Islanders, it’s a crisis that’s washing away their homes, infrastructure and even cemeteries.

The failure to take action on this crisis has led a group of Torres Strait Islanders to lodge a climate change case with the United Nations Human Rights Committee against the Australian federal government.

It’s the first time the Australian government has been taken to the UN for their failure to take action on climate change. And its the first time people living on a low lying island have taken action against any government.

This case – and other parallel cases – demonstrate that climate change is “fundamentally a human rights issue”, with First Nations most vulnerable to the brunt of a changing climate.

The group of Torres Strait Islanders lodging this appeal argue that the Australian government has failed to take adequate action on climate change. They allege that the re-elected Coalition government has not only steered Australia off track in meeting globally agreed emissions reductions, but has set us on course for climate catastrophe.

In doing so, Torres Strait Islanders argue that the government has failed to uphold human rights obligations and violated their rights to culture, family and life.

This case is a show of defiance in the face of Australia’s years of political inertia and turmoil over climate change.

It is the first time people living on a low-lying island – acutely vulnerable in the face of rising sea levels – have brought action against a government. But it may also be a sign of things to come, as more small island nations face impending climate change threats.

Breaching multiple human rights obligations

Driving this case is an alliance of eight Torres Strait Islanders, represented by the Torres Strait land and sea council, Gur A Baradharaw Kod, along with a legal team from ClientEarth and 350.org. They argue that their way of life has come under immediate and irreversible threat.

On this basis, they accuse the Australian government of breaching multiple articles of the UN Human Rights Declaration, including the right to culture, the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home, and the right to life.

In the early 1990s, the Torres Strait Islands were at the centre of struggles to secure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights in Australia.

Securing these rights were made possible through the historic Mabo Decision, and these rights remain central to land and human rights debates today as Torres Strait Islanders’ land and seas are threatened by climate change.

Torres Straight Islanders are on the frontlines

Some Torres Strait Islands are less than one metre above sea level and are already affected by climate change.

Rising tides have delivered devastating effects for local communities, including flooding homes, land and cultural sites, with dire flooding in 2018 breaking a sea wall built to protect local communities.

Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. The ancestral lands of these islands are being washed away by sea level rise from climate change.
Shutterstock

Increasing sea temperatures have also affected marine environments, driving coral bleaching and ocean acidification, and disrupting habitat for dugong, salt water crocodiles, and multiple species of turtle.

In the same way settler colonial violence dispossessed First Nations people from their ancestral homelands, climate change presents a real threat of further forced removal of people from their land and seas, alongside destruction of places where deep cultural and spiritual meaning is derived.

Parallel threats across the Pacific

While the Torres Strait appeal to the UN is groundbreaking, the challenges facing Torres Strait Islanders are not unique.

Delegates at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji last week described climate change as the “single greatest threat” to the region, with sea level rise occurring up to four times the global average in some countries in the Pacific.

Climate change is already causing migration across parts of the Pacific, including relocation of families from the Carteret Islands to Bougainville with support from local grassroots organisation Tulele Peisa.

The Alliance of Small Island States, an intergovernmental organisation, has demanded that signatories to the Paris Agreement, including through the Green Climate Fund, recognise fundamental loss and damages communities are facing, and compensate those affected.

The growing wave of climate litigation

Across the Torres Strait, the Pacific, and other regions on the frontline of climate change, there are a diversity of responses in defence of land and seas. These are often grounded in local and Indigenous knowledge.

They show the resolve of First Nations and local communities, as captured in a message from the Pacific Climate Warriors:

We are not drowning. We are fighting.

There are parallel appeals to the Torres Strait Islanders’ case. Around the world, First Nations people are calling on the UN to hold national governments to account on human rights obligations, including in the context of mining and other developments that drive greenhouse gas emissions.

In Australia, Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners have submitted multiple appeals, including last year alleging government violations of six international human rights obligations in their effort to advance Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine.

There is an array of other climate litigation underway. This includes citizens suing their governments for failing to take action on climate, such as in the Netherlands, where a judge ordered the government to take hefty action to reduce national emissions.

Similarly, a group of 21 children in the United States are pursuing a lawsuit to demand the right to a safe climate.

Given the parlous state of climate politics in Australia, further litigation can be expected. The significance of the current appeal by a group of Torres Strait Islanders lies in its potential to lay bare the adequacy or otherwise of Australia’s response to climate change as a human rights issue.

First Nations people already have a moral authority in defending their human rights in the era of climate change. Over time, they and others, including children, will also test the grounds on which they might have the legal authority to do so.The Conversation

Kristen Lyons, Professor Environment and Development Sociology, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders



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Environmental threats in the Pacific Islands can be cultural as well as physical.
Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Steven Cork, Australian National University and Kate Auty, University of Melbourne

What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.

Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.

Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.

Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.

At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.

One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.

The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.

There Once Was an Island.

Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.

As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.

Australia’s role

What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.

Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.

The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.

At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).

This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.

Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


The ConversationThis article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Steven Cork, Adjunct Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kate Auty, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.