Four years after huge tides flooded graves on Masig Island in the Torres Strait, Yessie Mosby continues to scour the beach for the skeletal remains of his great-great-grandmother.
The Australian Government denies responsibility for climate change, arguing it is a global problem
“My fear is that her skull has been squashed, smashed by the driftwood,” Mr Mosby said.
With the monsoon approaching, the sixth-generation traditional owner is worried rising seas could claim more sacred sites on his tiny island, situated between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
“Erosion is eating away our islands,” he said.
The 37-year-old is one of eight Torres Strait Islanders, called the Torres Strait 8, fighting the Australian Government’s attempt to have a landmark human rights complaint dismissed by the United Nations.
Their claim, lodged in May last year, accuses the Commonwealth of breaching their fundamental rights to culture and life by failing to adequately address climate change.
“Our way of living, our culture, our tradition has been violated,” Mr Mosby said.
Government denies responsibility
The ABC understands the Australian Government is rejecting the complaint on the grounds that it cannot be held individually responsible for climate change because it is a global problem.
Traditional owners said the state also argued the alleged human rights violations were a future problem rather than a current one.
A spokesperson for Attorney-General Christian Porter said it would be inappropriate to comment further while the UN Human Rights Committee investigated the complaint.
“The Australian Government engages in good faith with the Human Rights Committee in relation to any complaint received,” the spokesperson said.
But the Torres Strait Islanders have hit back at the Government’s claims.
“They tried to say that it’s not happening right now, but no-one has come up to see the impacts,” Warraber Island claimant Kabay Tamu said.
The group met in Cairns this week to make its final submission to the UN.
‘Our voice is powerful’
Sophie Marjanac, a UK-based lawyer representing the Torres Strait Islanders, said the case could set a global precedent.
“This claim is internationally important because it’s the first case that is brought by very climate-vulnerable people against their own home state,” Ms Marjanac said.
“It is the first time a claim has been brought based on the right to culture and the first claim directly against the Australian Federal Government’s climate policy.”
She said it was a “groundbreaking” opportunity to clarify where international law stood on the application of human rights to climate change.
Mr Mosby hoped to inspire other island communities.
“We want to put it out for the world to see that my people are fighters,” he said.
“To show other places and other countries around the world, other Indigenous peoples who are suffering the same as us now, that our voice is powerful.”
Action on the front line
As the group awaits the UN’s decision, Mr Mosby said his community had grown increasingly fearful of being forced to leave their island homes.
“That’s our history and to lose that we lose our identity as a family, as a clan, as a tribe,” he said.
“We need to save what we have now and not wait for something really bad to happen.”
A petition by the Torres Strait group calling on the Government to drastically reduce carbon emissions and phase out thermal coal has attracted more than 20,000 signatures.
The group was also calling on the Australian Government to commit $20 million for emergency measures to protect the islands against the immediate impacts of sea level rises.
“We didn’t contribute anything to what’s happening, but yet we’re on the front line,” Mr Mosby said.
“If we cry to our Government for help and justice, well that Australian Government is [supposed] to help us as Australians and as people.”
This content was originally published here.