A group of eight Torres Strait Islanders from low-lying islands off Australia’s northern coast submitted an historic complaint to the U.N. Human Rights Committee on Monday. The Torres Strait Islanders asserted that by failing to take adequate action on climate change, the Australian government has violated their fundamental human rights.
Rising seas threaten homes, culture and the very ability to live on the Torres Strait Islands. “A lot of people talk about climate change [and how] it’s going to happen, but in the Torres Strait Islands, it’s happening now,” said Melissa Nursey-Bray, head of the Department in Geography, Environment and Population at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
The Torres Strait Islanders’ claim is the first of its kind to come before the U.N. and may set a precedent for other island nations looking to frame climate change as a human rights issue. “These Torres Strait Islands face many of the same challenges as small island nations around the world, where rising seas are causing shoreline erosion, and it’s eating into ancestral lands [and] living areas,” explained Siri Veland, assistant professor of environmental studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and senior researcher at Nordland Research Institute, Norway.
In recent years, Torres Strait Islanders have sought to confront the threat to their land using flood mitigation and risk management strategies. They are also “trying to look at alternative livelihood options to broaden their economic base, so they’re not so reliant on agriculture,” turning to tourism and aquaculture, Nursey-Bray explained.
The backdrop to the current discussion about the Torres Strait Islands has been the lead-up to Australian federal elections. On May 18, voters will elect members of Parliament, and candidates have been battling over climate change policy. The results of the election will likely determine if Australia goes on to reduce emissions or not.
Siri Veland joins us to discuss the current complaint against the Australian government and how climate change relates to human rights.