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Issue #1927      August 10, 2020

“Our islands, our home” campaign

Perhaps one of the good things to come out of this pandemic’s enforced lock-down is the need to connect online. I personally have become addicted to the host of webinars that have introduced me to so many people around the world and the chance to hear their many stories. The latest one organised by the 350.Org on 29th July, in which Torres Strait Islanders let people know of the ongoing predicament they face daily on their islands now that the effects of climate change are intensifying.

In May, 2019, eight Islanders through ClientEarth, lodged a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee against the Australian government, charging them with inaction on the issue of climate change. Lawyer, Sophie Majanac, appearing in the webinar from London, reiterated that climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue and that the impacts – predicted and currently being experienced – by the Torres Strait Islanders, are proving to be catastrophic for its people. To date, the Morrison government has failed to take adequate action to reduce emissions or pursue proper adaptation measures on the islands and, as a consequence, has failed fundamental human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islander people.

Kabay Tamu, a 6th generation Warraber man, explained most eloquently the love and connection to their land, explaining how the loss of land due to erosion by the sea, is destroying their culture. Advancing seas are threatening homes, damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites. Many Torres Strait Islanders are worried that their islands could quite literally disappear in their lifetimes without urgent action: severely impacting on their ability to practice lore and culture. Kabay stressed the importance of the connection with the spirits of the land. With the destruction of their sacred sites they face a disconnection from those spirits: “it’s as though a piece of their body has been lost.” The rising seas, combined with tidal surges, are causing coastal erosion and inundation of agricultural land.

It became clear that this is the first climate change litigation brought against the Australian government which is based on human rights and it crossed my mind that perhaps it won’t be the last. The complainants allege 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. The litigation is clear – that the catastrophic nature of the predicted future impacts of climate change on the islands (which include 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 argument is that these rights have been violated both by Australia’s extremely deficient greenhouse gas mitigation targets and plans, and its failure to fund adequate coastal defence and resilience measures on the islands – such as seawalls. Islanders have asked the Australian government to commit at least $20 million for emergency measures such as seawalls, and sustained investment in long-term adaptation measures to ensure the islands can continue to be inhabited.

They also want a commitment to reduce emissions by at least sixty-five per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 going to net zero before 2050 with a phase-out of thermal coal, both for domestic electricity generation and export markets, which I’m sure all Australians want to see, especially after witnessing our own catastrophic firestorms with the subsequent annihilation of three billion animals. Unlike the Torres Strait Islanders, we on the mainland are not usually facing (on a daily basis) the destruction of our homes.

The majority of Australians believe global warming is a critical threat which has been, and is still being, underestimated by scientists and denied by politicians in thrall to their fossil fuel lobbyists. The Lowy Institute conducted a poll in 2019, which showed for the first time that climate has topped the list of threats to Australia’s national interests.

It is hardly surprising that the Australian government has taken no action to protect the Torres Strait Islanders, who are Australian citizens. Already, on the Australian mainland, we’re seeing properties teetering on cliff tops being undermined by the rising seas. This is not just a Torres Strait Islands problem but loss of their islands means losing their long-term heritage and culture as well.

The members of the webinar came across as happy, gentle people desperate to save their way of life. There were no accusations aimed at our government – which there should have been. The LNP has no policies which come near to meeting the Paris Agreement to commit to a 1.5 degree world. It has not effectively responded to the climate emergency for decades and has certainly not responded to the catastrophe of our own unprecedented summer firestorms.

They can find $270 billion for our defence forces but have done nothing for adaptation measures to save the Torres Strait Islands. An assessment was made for a sea wall around some islands to delay the worst impacts of climate change. It has been ignored, so their complaint has now gone to the UN Human Rights Committee coming through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It includes the right to culture, the right to be free from arbitrary interference and the right to life.

For these people, those islands are their life, their religion, their culture. The Islanders want two sets of outcomes.

They want the Australian government to take greater action as a “global” citizen to decrease the impacts of climate change, which means having stronger targets, being a much more active citizen and also moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

They want the Australian government to commit to doing everything it can to protect these islands from the impact of climate change. are running a campaign to (a) collect 20,000 signatures by November 2020 on a petition calling on Parliamentarians to protect Torres Strait Islanders’ right to their Island Homes; (b) to amplify the story of the eight claimant’s call to action; (c) to establish strong Indigenous cross-solidarity between peoples most affected by the climate crisis; and (d) to build the understanding of this issue amongst federal politicians across the political spectrum.

To sign the petition:

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