As It Happens

Indigenous Islanders win UN climate case against Australia — opening the door for others

A United Nations committee has found that Australia had violated the human rights of a group of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to adequately protect them from the impacts of climate change.

Australia climate inaction violated Torres Strait Islanders' human rights, UN committee rules

A portrait of a smiling man with dreadlocks and a beard standing against a backdrop of lush, green tropical plant life. He has a colourful wreath around his neck and is wearing a black shirt covered in a palm trees, fish and bright yellow flowers.
Yessie Mosby is one of the eight Torres Strait Islanders who brought a climate change case against Australia at the United Nations. (Mary Harm/ Australia)

Torres Strait Islander Yessie Mosby got a call from his lawyers last week that gave him goosebumps and brought him to tears.

The United Nations human rights committee found that Australia had violated his people's rights by failing to adequately protect them from the impacts of climate change.

"I was shocked. I just went into silent mode at first, and I said, 'Can you say that again?' She repeated herself and I just gave the biggest scream and said, 'Oh, thank you, Lord!'" Mosby told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

"I had my elders around too and I got to share the good news with them, and the village went into celebration mode."

The complaint, filed in 2019 by Mosby and seven other Torres Strait Islanders and their children, is one of a growing body of climate cases being brought around the world on human rights grounds, and the ruling is expected to embolden others.

'Worth fighting for'

Torres Strait Islanders comprise several Indigenous nations who live on small clusters of low-lying islands dotted between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Mosby lives on Masig Island: a teardrop shaped coral atoll, which he says has provided for his people for thousands of years, but which is in rapid environmental decline due to rising sea levels.

Since 2019, he says the island has lost five metres of land.

Huge swaths of coconut trees have been washed away. There are fewer fish, he says, and so Islanders must go farther than ever from the shore to bring home food. And the seabirds that once made their homes on the island are dwindling away. 

An open structure surrounded by flat rocks on a white sunny beach. In the background, a big leafy tree hangs over the bright green ocean, and a young man leaps into the water. Several other people are in the ocean, some swimming, some boating and some with surfboards.
Mosby says Masig Island is rapidly losing land and biodiversity due to rising sea levels. (Greg Nelson/ACS/ Australia )

Still, he says his home is a beautiful place, rich in a culture that dates back 60,000 years and is still practiced today.

"This island is awesome. It's worth fighting for, I'll tell you that," he said. "On top of that, it's sacred because our loved ones are buried right through this island."

Picking up bones

It was those buried loved ones that propelled Mosby to join the the human rights complaint against Australia. It started, he says, in 2018, when coastal erosion caused severe damage to local burial sites. 

He says his uncle came running up to him with a concerned look on his face, and informed him the remains of one Mosby's wife's ancestors were scattered along the beach. He spent the day with a bucket, collecting her bones. 

"And man, that shattered me," he said. "Like, we were picking up her remains like shells off the beach."

He says the Torres Strait Islanders brought their concerns about their burial sites to the then-conservative government. 

"It affected us mentally, physically and spiritually, and I said now something has to be done," he said. "We gave the government an invitation to come up to see our home, which the government refused ... so that drove me to, you know, join this fight."

Global implications for Indigenous people 

The case was filed when Australia's former conservative government was in power. Since then, parliament has passed legislation on emissions cuts and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has visited the islands this year.

The UN committee said that by not taking action to curb climate change, the former government had violated two of the three human rights set out in a UN Treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), pertaining to culture and family life. It called on Australia to provide the islanders with an effective remedy. 

The claimants are asking the government to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, push the international community to keep global warming at 1.5 C., fund Torres Strait Islander programs to adapt to climate change, and support Torres Strait communities as they build community-owned renewable energy sources.

While the ruling is not legally binding, Mosby says he's optimistic the new government will work with his people toward a solution. 

Australia's Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said in emailed comments to Reuters that the government was working with the Islanders on climate change, and stressed that the case predated the current administration.

Four small children stand on a beach wearing traditional grass outfits. Three are holding tall sticks, and one is holding up a cardboard sign that reads: "I support the #TorresStrait8"
Mosby says one of the reasons he's fighting for his island is to secure a future for his children. (Yessie Mosby)

Meanwhile, the ruling could have far-reaching implications. Of the 193 UN member states, 173 of them have ratified the treaty at the heart of this ruling. That includes Canada.

The environmental charity ClientEarth, which worked with the claimants, said it was the first legal action brought by climate-vulnerable inhabitants of small islands against a nation state, setting several precedents.

"If we can do it, knowing now that the door has been open, it would be open for many Indigenous nations around the world to walk through," Mosby said. "And let's walk through in unity."

With files from Reuters. Interview with Yessie Mosby produced by Katie Geleff.

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