A group of indigenous islanders from Australia’s Torres Strait has launched a world-first legal battle in a bid to protect their homes.
Yessie Mosby fears he may be forced to leave the coral cay where his ancestors have lived for thousands of years.
They argue Australia has breached their rights to culture and life by failing to adequately address climate change.
The low-lying islands, located on the northern tip of Australia, have seen rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding in recent years.
It’s the first time a claim of this kind has been taken to the UN Human Rights Committee.
Here is why we are taking the Australian government to the UN over its inaction on climate change
I want my kids to enjoy the freedom of being on traditional land, as we have been doing for thousands of years. Our island home is at risk
‘The Torres Strait has not contributed to climate change, but we are on the frontline of its impacts. I’ve seen the impacts myself very clearly as the years pass.’ Aerial picture of Dauan Island in the Torres Strait. Photograph: Lloyd Jones/AAPFri 14 Aug 2020 02.09 BST
Torres Strait Islander fishers protesting against non-indigenous commercial mfishoing (Radio ‘4 Meriba Wakai’) Source: Facebook
I’d like to tell you about my home, Masig Island. Masig is a coral cay in the Torres Strait Islands, about halfway between the tip of Cape York and the mainland of Papua New Guinea. I wake and sleep to the sound of the ocean breathing its waves on to the beach.
My genealogy, my ancestors, my family tree lies here. This island is my library, my school and my storyteller. It’s love, it’s life, and it’s ancient. There is a mythical, spiritual aura around this place. We are not migrants to this sacred land, we have lived here for generations.
Masig is my playground and my kids’ playground, and will be their kids’ playground after them.
I want my kids to live life to the fullest, and live life how we have enjoyed it. When I watch my kids running on the beach, I think about how I ran on that beach and my grandfathers, great grandfathers and their forefathers did before us. And I want to gift my grandchildren and great grandchildren a place they can call home.
I want to see my kids swim in the ocean, respecting the abundance of food that the ocean gives us and enjoying the freedom of being on your own traditional land, as we have been doing for thousands of years.
Vonda Malone is the indigenous leader and first female Mayor of the Torres Shire Council.
But climate change is putting our island home at risk. The Torres Strait has not contributed to climate change, but we are on the frontline of its impacts. I’ve seen the impacts myself very clearly as the years pass. Inundation and the erosion of the shorelines have washed away our roads, salinity is destroying our coconut trees and garden crops, and our drinking water wells have been contaminated.
I’ve seen human remains washed into the sea, and I’ve had to collect the bones of my ancestors from their sacred resting place on the shoreline, and move them further inland. These impacts are something we weren’t prepared for.
We are warriors, and we are bringing our warrior spirit to this fight
Unless something is done urgently, the climate science tells us that the impacts will get worse, and could even threaten our ability to stay on Masig Island. The threat of being displaced – all due to the Australian government’s failure to act on climate change – is one felt across the diverse Torres Strait Islands.
This would be a catastrophe for Torres Strait Islanders. Our land is the string connecting us to our culture. It ties us to who we are. If we were to move, we would be like helium balloons disconnected from our culture. Our culture would become extinct. We would be a dying race of people.
Kabay Tamu is representing Warraber Island in a landmark human rights claim against the Australian Government.(
That’s why I have joined with seven other Torres Strait Islanders from across the region to take the Australian government to the UN over its inaction on climate change, as a violation of our human rights.
We are demanding the government protect the island from the effects of climate change, and make sure that all steps are based on a full, proper study across the island of what is happening. And we need the government to sit down and consult with Masig people and listen to our local knowledge of the environment.
And the government must look in its backyard at how it is contributing to the problem, and move away from coal, oil and gas.
We filed our case with the UN in 2019, and in December they announced $25m for sea wall funding in the Torres Strait. This is a start, but it is only crumbs when you consider the scale of the problem and the fact that this will need to be split over 18 islands already experiencing major impacts. And it doesn’t address Australia’s ongoing contribution to climate change through our fossil fuel exports and domestic emissions.
We have just seen the government’s response to the UN case, which will not be released publicly. The government is saying that the UN should dismiss the case as the threat to our human rights is in the future – but how can they say that when we have told them about the impacts we are seeing right now?
The government also said that the case should be dismissed because Australia is not the only contributor to the problem. We know that the rest of the world is contributing, but Australia is one of the world’s biggest users of fossil fuels and we must start somewhere.
We are Australian citizens and international law says that Australia must protect our human rights.
We are warriors, and we are bringing our warrior spirit to this fight. We are joining with our Indigenous brothers and sisters across the many nations that make up Australia, and beyond our shores across the Pacific.
Our Pacific family also faces similar threats but we will not drown in this fight. This is our time to rise as a quiver of arrows, stronger together, because our mothers gave birth to warriors.
We’re all one black people and share the same pain. To lose an island of people is like an amputation because our histories and cultures are so interconnected that we feel the slightest loss. Right now, we are calling for solidarity from the Australian public as we fight to protect our island homes, our people, and our culture, kids and future generations.
Yessie Mosby is a Zenadh Kes Masig man, living in the Kulkalgal tribe area in the Central Torres Strait Islands. He is an artist and craftsman, a claimant in the human rights complaint to the United Nations over climate change, and the Torres Strait organiser with 350.org Australia
Australia asks UN to dismiss Torres Strait Islanders’ claim climate change affects their human rights
@murpharooThu 13 Aug 2020 18.30 BST
Complaint argues Morrison government has failed to take adequate action on emissions or adaptation measures
Low-lying islands such as Masig and Boigu are likely to be at the forefront of forced displacement.
The Morrison government has asked the human rights committee of the United Nations to dismiss a landmark claim by a group of Torres Strait Islanders from low-lying islands off the northern coast of Australia that climate change is having an impact on their human rights, according to lawyers for the complainants.
The complaint, lodged just over 12 months ago, (now 2 years) argued the Morrison government had failed to take adequate action to reduce emissions or pursue proper adaptation measures on the islands and, as a consequence, had failed fundamental human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islander people.
But the lead lawyer for the case, Sophie Marjanac, says the Coalition has rejected arguments from the islanders, telling the UN the case should be dismissed “because it concerns future risks, rather than impacts being felt now, and is therefore inadmissible”.
Marjanac said lawyers for the commonwealth had told the committee because Australia is not the main or only contributor to global warming, climate change action is not its legal responsibility under human rights law.
“The government’s lawyers also rejected arguments that climate impacts were being felt today, and that effects constituting a human rights violation are yet to be suffered”.
A spokesman for the attorney general, Christian Porter, said submissions to the human rights committee were not publicly available. He said once made, the UN transmits the government’s submission to the complainants. “It is now for the committee to consider the submissions and reach a decision,” the spokesman 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. Guardian Australia has not seen the commonwealth’s submission, because that would be a breach of UN processes.
The complainants are alleging that Australia has violated article 27, the right to culture; article 17, the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home; and article 6, the right to life. Decisions in these processes can take up to two years.
Traditional owner Yessie Mosby says his community cannot wait any longer for the Australian Government to act on climate change.(Supplied: Yessie Mosby)
Lawyers for the islanders have alleged that the catastrophic nature of the predicted future impacts of climate change on the Torres Strait Islands, including the total submergence of ancestral homelands, is a sufficiently severe impact as to constitute a violation of the rights to culture, family and life.
The challenges associated with sea level rise in the Torres Strait have been well documented. A report from the Climate Council on the risks associated with coastal flooding notes that Torres Strait Island communities are extremely low-lying and are thus among the most vulnerable in Australia to the impacts of climate change.
The report concludes the shallowness of the strait “exacerbates storm surges and when such surges coincide with very high tides, extreme sea levels result”. It cites sea level data collected by satellite from one location in the Torres Strait between 1993 and 2010 that indicated a rise of 6 mm per annum, “more than twice the global average”,
Although the report notes this was a single dataset, low-lying islands in the Pacific – and Torres Strait islands such as Masig and Boigu – are likely to be at the forefront of forced displacement.
Some forecasts have predicted up to 150 million people could be forcibly displaced by climate change by 2040 – larger than the record number of people already forced from their homes globally.
The non-profit group ClientEarth is supporting the complaint. A spokesman for the group said: “It is shameful that Indigenous communities on Australia’s climate frontline are being told that the risk of climate change to their human rights is merely a future hypothetical issue, when scientists are clear these impacts will happen in coming decades”.
“Climate change risk is foreseeable and only preventable through immediate action in the present. States like Australia have legal duties to protect the human rights of their citizens”.
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