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, 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.
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”.