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Australia violated Torres Islander rights: UN


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Dwellings damaged by a storm surge on Iama Island (John Rainbird)


MapNOOSA – The United Nations has declared that Australia has violated the human rights of a group of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to adequately protect them from the impacts of climate change.

Torres Strait Islanders are Indigenous Australians who live on small clusters of low-lying islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The case was filed when the former conservative government, seen as a laggard in the battle against climate change, was in power.

In 2019, eight Torres Strait Islanders and their children filed a complaint under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Islanders said their homes are at risk of being submerged by rising sea levels and that food sources and ancestral burial sites have already been damaged, scattering human remains.

In its judgement, the UN committee said Australia had violated two of three human rights pertaining to culture and family life set out in the covenant.

It called for Australia to provide the Islanders with an effective remedy.

There is no means of enforcing the committee’s decision, but the UN said that governments generally comply with the committee's findings.

Australia's attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told the Reuters news agency that the Albanese government was working with the Islanders on climate change but he did not indicate what remedies are being discussed.

The new Labor government in Australia has taken steps to address climate change but scientists say it has not gone far enough and will have to do more, including not allowing new coal mines to open, which it has shown no inclination to do.

"The Australian government is considering the committee's views and will provide its response in due course," Dreyfus said, in a statement that provided no reassurance that to the Islanders that their successful complaint would trigger the kind of action required to address their concerns.

But the Torres Strait Islanders were pleased with their victory.

Graves on Saibai Island damaged by erosion and flooding (John Rainbird)

"I know that our ancestors are rejoicing knowing that Torres Strait Islander voices are being heard throughout the world through this landmark case," said Yessie Mosby, a landowner on Masig island.

"This win gives us hope that we can protect our island homes, culture and traditions for our kids and future generations to come," he said.

The environmental organisation, Client Earth, who worked with the claimants said this was the first legal action brought by climate-vulnerable inhabitants of small islands against a nation state and it established several precedents.

Sources: Reuters, Oxfam, CoastAdapt

Further reading: Case study - Adapting to sea-level rise in the Torres Strait



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Bernard Corden

Back in the early 1990s, Auberon Waugh coined the verb 'to pilger'.

It meant presenting information in a sensational manner to support a foregone conclusion, using emotive language to make a false political point, treating a subject emotionally with generous disregard for inconvenient detail, or making a pompous judgement on wrong premises.

It has since been replaced by 'to be crosby-textored', which is what happens to any media reports covering climate change by the Murdochracy.

From my entry in Wikipedia: "UK-based Australian firebrand journalist John Pilger, in his book A Secret Country, accused Jackson of censoring him during a visit he made to Sydney, a claim Jackson denied, saying, 'The only thing he got right was my name'."

Arthur Williams

If anyone has the remedy for these islands please tell us but especially Oxfam, COP27, etc etc.

It is too late for many low-lying islands around the world not just the little ones in Torres Strait. The Atoll's islands about 90km north of Bougainville have been disappearing for a long time.

There is well made 2009 Eight minute video called 'Sisters on the Planet-Cateret Island' which is well worth to look at this now 13 year old record of the people and their vanishing homeland.

Only yesterday too I was reading about the 2010 film 'There Once was an island- Te Henua e Nnoho' It is 1 hour 20mins video available on Amazon Prime on your tv. There is a trailer clip too which is quite dramatic.

Lindsay has shown us how recorded internal migration from Saibai Islet to mainland Australia has been going on at least 80 years but most likely far longer.

There are problems for such transplanting of whole communities which has staggered along for the sad inhabitants of the PNG's Atoll's region.

Some have moved to Tinputz but I guess elsewhere in their province too.

For years we have been able to read how the lives of the Manam Island's 2004 (& later eruptions) volcanic refugees & their neighbouring islanders have been impacted in trying to live in Bogia & some other sites.
Obviously in the 18 years of exile children have become adults and married and then had their own babies so that the population is continually increasing.

This has brought the displaced folk into direct confrontation with their new neighbours over finding land for gardening, health services, schools and of course under all the basic social needs is the original eco-refugees brought their unique traditions and customs.
Mismanagement or possibly corrupt practices with the many millions of the Manam Restoration funds have only exacerbated their lives and that of their now long-suffering host communities.

I think during the recent PNG general election the 'squatters' were enabled to vote in electorate of their original island rather than mainland Bogia. Goodness knows how they were registered while having two residences.

In 2008, before I led a team of divers to the Kaniet Atoll half a degree south of the Equator in Manus Province, I checked out some info on the atoll that was about 10 hours by slow ship from Lorengau.

The well-known Pacific Islands Pilot (the10th Edition published 1984 - I think) recorded that the Kaniet Atoll consists of 5 islands. Even today Wikipedia repeats the same number.

I was there in 2008 and there are only 2 as the others have disappeared. Sadly but perhaps luckily the original Micronesians, 'Hombres Blancos' of Kaniet first ever reported by Yñigo Ortiz de Rete in mid-1545 had also disappeared just before WW1.

I wonder if the now missing three islands vanished due to a sudden tsunami or rising sea levels.

With so much swampy land on the south of New Guinea Island and typical flooded fjords on parts of the north is a sign that the whole terrestrial block is tilting up in the south and the north conversely downwards.

If so, the fate of Saibai attributed to rising seas may not actually be the problem but merely a shift caused by tectonic collision.

Lindsay F Bond

Harry - News reporting at those years mention a 1946 cyclone, various increases in Islander populations, the Queensland Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939 and effectively more opportunity of arable land and water supply.

Tue 3 Dec 1946 - Warwick Daily News (Qld. : 1919-54)

"Mr O'Leary said the cyclone's track might have been narrow. Apparently it swept from Horn and Naghir Islands v north-westerly towards Saibai Island. Mr Jensen had reported that 20 inches of rain fell in two days at Thursday Island."

Tue 30 Sep 1947 Warwick Daily News (Qld. : 1919 -1954)

"The migration of Torres Strait islanders to the mainland, where they are settling on Cape York Peninsula, was commented upon by the Minister for Health and Home Affairs (Mr. Jones) yesterday following his first official visit to Torres Strait. About 160 already had gone across from Saibai Island, and more were expeoted to follow, the Minister said."

Tue 30 Sep 1947 - Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 - 1954)

"The migration of Torres Strait islanders to the mainland where they are settling on the good lands of Cape York Peninsula was commented upon by the Minister for Health and Home Affairs, Mr A Jones, today, following his first official visit to Torres Strait.

"Mr. Jones said the populations of the Torres Strait islands were increasing and the main-land offered better land for farming and better water facilities. About 160 already had gone across from Saibai Island and more were expected to follow."

Fri 2 Apr 1948 - The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954)

"Tidal erosion caused by storms during the summer has attacked two islands in the Torres Strait., housing State Government aboriginal settlements. The islands are Saibai on which 350 aborigines are settled, and Boigu, which has a native population of 160."

Stephen Charteris

This is a foretaste. A glimpse of the first of many shots across the bows for fossil dependent economies.

A look at recent developments concerning restitution for damage caused by carbon pollution is testament to the avalanche of cases coming down the line.

The ongoing tragedy in Pakistan, the situation building in Somalia and east Africa, courtesy of the impact of successive La Nina, negative Indian Ocean Dipole events and a reduction in distributive effect of the Antarctic circular pattern in the Great Southern Ocean.

This is the engine that drives the winds and currents and has distributed energy around the globe for millennia in a manner conducive to the rise of agriculture and the great civilisations built by mankind.

The inexorable breakdown of these oceanic and atmospheric systems courtesy of the ability of carbon dioxide to trap long wave radiation is but a foretaste of what is to come.

I doubt we will hear any complaints though because we have all been told.

Harry Topham

Not quite sure about the veracity of this but immediately after World War II, Saibai Island was inundated with a massive tidal surge destroying gardens and food stocks.

This necessitated a large number of the Saibai Island people being moved to Bamaga on the tip of Cape York.

Others went to Seisia, the name being constructed ot the first initials of the six tribal leaders.

Saibai lying very close to PNG is basically a very low lying mud island.

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