The UN ruled that Australia violated the islanders’ rights

The Torres Strait Islands are already facing rising sea levels and coastal erosion.Credit: Brook Mitchell/Getty

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has found that the Australian government violated the rights of people living on four islands in the Torres Strait and ordered it to pay for the damage caused. The commission ruled last week that the country had failed to protect the islanders from the effects of climate change, making their claim the first successful one of its kind.

The Torres Strait Islands at the northern tip of Australia are already feeling the brunt of the damage from climate change. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding have had devastating effects on island communities.

Bridget Lewis, at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, studies how human rights law can be applied to environmental cases. Louis spoke Nature about the case and its implications for other communities seeking redress for climate change damages.

What is it;

The Torres Strait Islander case alleged that the Australian government failed to take mitigation and adaptation measures to combat the effects of climate change and therefore failed to protect their human rights. They submitted their complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Islanders say their land is threatened by rising sea levels. Their culture is also at risk, as saltwater kills traditional food sources such as coconuts, and storms have swept away culturally important sites, including cemeteries.

What did the UN committee decide?

The commission found that the Australian government had breached the rights of the islanders by failing to implement adaptation measures to protect their homes, privacy and families — as well as their ability to maintain their traditional ways of life and pass on their culture and traditions. traditions to future generations. It also ruled that Torres Strait Islanders were entitled to compensation for the damage they suffered.

The decision focused on adaptation and basically ignored mitigation. Adaptation failures are much easier to prove, because we don’t have to deal with the question of who caused the failures. Suffice it to point out, for example, that the Australian government has failed to build the requested walls that would help communities adapt to climate change.

The commission rejected the claim that Australia had violated the islanders’ “right to live in dignity”. This is likely because the threat was deemed not to have reached a high enough level. But many committee members disagreed with this decision.

The government has 180 days to respond and there is still much uncertainty about what it will do. In the wake of the decision, ministers said they were committed to working with islanders on climate change.

Why is this decision important?

This is the first time that a climate damage claim brought to the UN Human Rights Commission has been successful. The decision isn’t strictly legally binding — but it’s still important because an international panel of experts has ruled that an international treaty has been violated. And that makes it a big deal for Australia.

Why do people use human rights law to address environmental concerns?

Using human rights law is a relatively new strategy. In 2005, a group of Inuit people filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging that the United States had violated the rights of Inuit people by failing to protect them from the effects of climate change. The case was not successful, but it started the idea that it might be possible to apply human rights law to address climate problems.

Why did this case succeed?

An important reason was that Torres Strait Islanders could point to the effects they were already experiencing. This gave rise to Australia’s obligation to protect them from these effects. The country has been a sitting duck for these kinds of cases because it is such a high emitter of greenhouse gases. And it was so reckless to act.

The panel looked at how environmental changes affect the islanders’ ability to practice their culture. They can’t do this somewhere else, so adaptation involving migration is not sufficient. It must be something that allows islanders to continue their way of life on their islands and in their waters.

Does it affect other island communities?

Human rights law has struggled with cases where island states are threatened by climate change. Conventionally, complaints have been made by individuals against their own government, which is deemed to owe them an obligation. This leaves little choice for the people of small island nations to be harmed by the collective actions of the rest of the world.

But other recent cases have pushed back against these national border restrictions. In 2019, for example, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and 15 other children appealed to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child against five nations that were not meeting their own commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The commission accepted that states could have obligations to people outside their territory — but ultimately ruled the complaint inadmissible, finding that the petitioners had not exhausted legal avenues in individual countries.

In another example, Vanuatu is seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, which hears disputes between countries, to see whether nations can be held responsible under international law for the effects of climate change.

Taking these cases together, it certainly seems that things are changing in a positive direction.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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