4 October 2022

Reflection on the Torres Strait Case: The State Needs to Protect Vulnerable Communities Affected by Climate Change

The complainant from a group of Indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait Islands. (Doc. clientearth.org)

IOJI and ICEL share a joint statement which is expected to encourage the government to strengthen a more comprehensive mitigation and adaptation to climate change issues. The statement is a reflection of the case involving the Torres Strait Islanders and the Australian government.

The General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution declaring the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right (HAM). The resolution adopted on July 28, 2022 departs from obstacles to fulfilling human rights related to global environmental degradation.

Two months later, the UN Human Rights Committee said the Australian government had violated the human rights of the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islanders, an indigenous Melanesian people who live on the islands around the strait in the Australian state of Queensland.

Based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia was found guilty, obliged to provide compensation as well as restore the habitat of the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands (Torres Strait Islanders).

Protecting Communities on Small Islands

The Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI) and the Indonesia Center for International Law (ICEL) assess that the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision on this case needs to be scrutinized by the world’s governments – especially Indonesia, a country with the highest climate vulnerable inhabitants.

The Central Bureau of Statistics in 2020 stated that the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, the threat of extreme waves, and tidal floods, would threaten 42 million Indonesians who live less than 10 meters above sea level.

The National Disaster Management Agency concluded that the impact of climate change has also changed the morphology of the coast, submerged small islands and polluted fresh water sources.

The impact of climate change has been felt in small islands as recorded by the LAPAN satellite. The areas of Anak Krakatau Island (Lampung), Kalinambang Island (North Sulawesi), Nipa Island and Anak Ladang Island (Riau Archipelago) and Karakitang Island (Bangka-Belitung) are degraded as a result of being affected by rising sea levels.

Reflecting on the case involving the Australian government, “the country can be sued if it neglects to protect its people from climate disasters. We remind again that Indonesia can be sued if it fails to achieve its emission reduction targets,” said IOJI Director, Stephanie Juwana.

As the 7th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, “Indonesia needs to accelerate efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, especially in low-lying islands that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” said Stephanie.

“Delaying adequate mitigation and adaptation has the potential to create threats of human rights violations by the state,” IOJI and ICEL wrote in a joint statement. Similar to the case in the Torres Strait Islands.

Reflecting on the Failure of the Australian Government

The indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait Islanders inhabit an archipelago in northeastern Australia. Their spiritual life is so close to nature, even since ancient times.

In 2019, eight adults and their six children in the indigenous group submitted a joint complaint letter to the UN Human Rights Committee.

Living in Boigu, Poruma, Warraber and Masig – four small islands in Australia’s Torres Strait region – the 14 people stated that the Australian government had failed to address climate change in their residential area.

In the complaint, they claim the changing weather patterns are having a direct impact on the livelihoods, culture and traditional way of life of the local population. They argue that climate change, which is marked by heavy rain accompanied by storms, has damaged the soil and trees.

The sea level also rose. Its rise causes salty water to seep into the ground. Seepage also kills the development of coconuts, one of the traditional foods of the people in the islands.

Severe flooding caused by tidal waves in recent years, residents wrote in the complaint, have destroyed family graves leaving bodies scattered across their island. In fact, guarding ancestral graves and communicating with deceased relatives is the essence of their culture.

In the decision, the UN Human Rights Committee also took into account the spiritual connection of the islanders who are close to their traditional lands, and the dependence of their cultural integrity on the health of the surrounding ecosystem.

The Committee also found the failure of the Australian government to take timely and adequate action to protect the island’s indigenous people from the impacts of climate change.

Failure constitutes a violation of the rights of indigenous peoples to enjoy their own culture, and to be free from arbitrary interference in their private, family and home lives.

“States that fail to protect individuals under their jurisdiction from the devastating effects of climate change are violating human rights under international law,” said UN Human Rights Committee member Hélène Tigroudja.

The joint press release of IOJI and ICEL, can be read here.


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