Categories
Adaptation Australia Climate-induced displacement Human Rights Committee Imminent risk Indigenous peoples rights Indigenous peoples' rights Private and family life Right to culture Right to life Sea-level rise Standing/admissibility Vulnerability

Billy et al. v. Australia (Torres Straits Islanders case)

Summary:
This petition against Australia was brought to the UN Human Rights Committee by a group of eight indigenous Torres Straits Islanders in 2019, in their own names and on behalf of their children. In their petition, they argued that the Australian government had violated their rights, as inhabitants of low-lying islands, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) because of its inaction in addressing climate change (failure to mitigate emissions and to take adaptation measures).

Rights at stake:
The applicants in this case invoked a series of rights in the ICCPR, on behalf of themselves and their children, contesting the respondent State’s failure to adopt mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cease the promotion of fossil fuels. To support this, they drew on 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) ICCPR. They argued that the indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait Islands, especially those who reside on low-lying islands, are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They considered that the Australian government must ensure both mitigation and adaptation measures in order to adequately protect their rights. Previously, the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), a government body, had stated that “the effects of climate change threaten the islands themselves as well as marine and coastal ecosystems and resources, and therefore the life, livelihoods and unique culture of Torres Strait Islanders.”

Outcome:

On 21 July 2022, the Human Rights Committee adopted its Views in this case.

Observations of the State:

The Australian Government argued that the case was inadmissible, contesting the relevance of climate-related international agreements and its own ability to be held (legally or practically) responsible for climate-related harms. It also submitted that it was not possible to attribute climate change to the State party under international human rights law.

The HRC’s considerations on the admissibility:

On the issue of the exhaustion of domestic remedies, the Government’s position was that it did not owe a duty of care for failing to regulate environmental harm, and that it was not required to provide a remedy where (including in the present case) it understood there to be no breach of ICCPR rights. This question was accordingly reserved to the examination of the merits.

Concerning mitigation measures, the HRC noted that Australia is and has been a major greenhouse gas emitter, and ranks high on economic and development indices. As a result, it found that the alleged (in)actions fell under its jurisdiction under articles 1 or 2 of the Optional Protocol.

Concerning the imminence of the risk concerned, and accordingly the issue of victim status / standing, the Committee found that the authors of this Communication, “as members of peoples who are the longstanding inhabitants of traditional lands consisting of small, low-lying islands that presumably offer scant opportunities for safe internal relocation – are highly exposed to adverse climate change impacts”. Given the uncontested dependence of their lives and cultures on natural resources and phenomena, and their inability to finance adaptation measures on their own, the authors were considered to be “extremely vulnerable to intensely experiencing severely disruptive climate change impacts”. Given the authors’ allegations of serious ongoing adverse impacts, the HRC declared their claims under articles 6, 17, 24 (1) and 27 of the ICCPR admissible.

Merits:

Article 6

The Committee recalled that the right to life cannot be interpreted restrictively, and that it requires States to adopt protective measures (i.e. that it entails positive obligations). It recalled its own General Comment No. 36, issued in 2018, in establishing that the right to life also extends to reasonably foreseeable threats to life, including adverse climate change impacts and environmental degradation.

The Committee rejected Australia’s allegation that the interpretation of the ICCPR contained in this General Comment was not compatible with the rules of treaty interpretation under general international law. It then went on to recall its own earlier Teitiota v. New Zealand case (on climate-induced displacement), ultimately finding that the authors were not currently facing health impacts or real and reasonably foreseeable risks of being exposed harms to their right to life. The Committee also noted that the right-to-life claim being made largely related to the authors’ ability to maintain their culture, which falls under article 27 ICCPR.

Regarding the authors’ submission that, absent urgent action, their islands will become uninhabitable within 10 to 15 years, the Committee noted the adaptation and mitigation measures currently planned or being taken, and found that the time frame of 10 to 15 years could allow for additional protective measures or relocation programmes. As a result, it found that there had been no violation of the right to life in this case.

Article 17

The authors claimed that climate change already affects their private, family and home life, given that they may be forced to abandon their homes. The Committee considered that the authors’ dependence on marine and terrestrial resources and ecosystems is a component of their traditional indigenous way of life, falling under the scope of Article 17 ICCPR.

Considering the adaptation measures and related plans in place, the Committee noted the existence of unexplained delays in seawall construction and the lack of explanation concerning the loss of marine resources, crops and fruit trees. It noted the ongoing inundation of villages and ancestral burial lands; the withering of traditional gardens through salinification; the decline of nutritionally and culturally important marine species; coral bleaching and ocean acidification; and the authors’ anxiety and distress. The Committee also noted the importance of community lands for the authors’ most important cultural ceremonies. It accordingly found that:

“that when climate change impacts – including environmental degradation on traditional [indigenous] lands (…) – have direct repercussions on the right to one’s home, and the adverse consequences of those impacts are serious because of their intensity or duration and the physical or mental harm that they cause, then the degradation of the environment may adversely affect the well-being of individuals and constitute foreseeable and serious violations of private and family life and the home.”

Finding that Australia had failed to discharge its positive obligation to implement adequate adaptation measures to protect the authors’ home, private life and family, the HRC found a violation of the authors’ rights under article 17 ICCPR.

Article 27

Article 27 ICCPR recognizes the right of members of minority indigenous groups to the enjoyment of culture, and protects the survival and continued development of their cultural identity. Interpreted in the light of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this right enshrines the inalienable right of indigenous peoples to enjoy their traditional territories and natural resources. Here, the authors argued that their ability to maintain their culture has already been impaired due to climate change impacts, which have eroded their traditional lands and natural resources, for which there is no substitute on mainland Australia. The Committee found that these climate impacts represent a threat that was reasonably foreseeable by the State party, as the authors’ community had been raising the issue since the 1990s. While noting existing seawall construction projects, it considered that the delay in initiating these projects indicated an inadequate response by the State party to the threat in question. It found that the failure to adopt timely and adequate adaptation measures “to protect the authors’ collective ability to maintain their traditional way of life, to transmit to their children and future generations their culture and traditions and use of land and sea resources discloses a violation of the State party’s positive obligation to protect the authors’ right to enjoy their minority culture.” Accordingly, it found a violation of Article 27 ICCPR.

As a result of its findings concerning Articles 17 and 27 ICCPR, the HRC considered it not necessary to examine the authors’ remaining claims under article 24 (1) ICCPR.

Remedies:

Under Article 2 (3) (a) ICCPR, the HRC noted that the State was required to make full reparation to the authors, which meant providing adequate compensation; engaging in meaningful consultations with their communities to conduct needs assessments; continuing its adaptation measures and monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of existing measures; and taking steps to prevent similar violations in the future. The Committee requested the State to provide it with information about the measures taken in this regard within 180 days.

Separate opinions:

Several HRC members appended individual opinions to the Views. These include:

  • The individual opinion by Committee Member Duncan Laki Muhumuza, arguing that there had been a violation of Article 6 ICCPR (the right to life);
  • The individual opinion by Committee Member Gentian Zyberi, concurring but arguing that the Committee had focused too heavily on adaptation measures, and should instead have more clearly linked the right under Article 27 ICCPR to mitigation measures;
  • The joint opinion by Committee Members Arif Bulkan, Marcia V. J. Kran and Vasilka Sancin (partially dissenting), who argued that there had been a violation of Article 6 ICCPR (the right to life). They argued in particular that the “real and foreseeable risk” standard employed by the majority interpreted Article 6 too restrictively, and was inappropriate here as it had been borrowed from the dissimilar context of its refugee cases (Teitiota v. New Zealand, the HRC’s first climate-induced displacement case).

Full decision:

The HRC’s Views are available here.

Further reading:

  • Maria Antonia Tigre, ‘U.N. Human Rights Committee finds that Australia is violating human rights obligations towards Torres Strait Islanders for climate inaction’, available here.
  • Verena Kahl, ‘Rising Before Sinking: The UN Human Rights Committee’s landmark decision in Daniel Billy et al. v. Australia,’ Verfassungsblog, 3 October 2022, available here.
  • Nicole Barrett and Aishani Gupta, ‘Why Did the UN Human Rights Committee Refuse Broader Protections for Climate Change Victims?’, Opinio Juris blog, 5 October 2022, available here.
  • Christina Voigt, ‘UNHRC is Turning up the Heat: Human Rights Violations Due to Inadequate Adaptation Action to Climate Change’, EJIL:Talk! Blog, 26 September 2022, available here.
  • Monica Feria-Tinta, ‘Torres Strait Islanders: United Nations Human Rights Committee Delivers Ground-Breaking Decision on Climate Change Impacts on Human Rights’, EJIL:Talk! Blog, 27 September 2022, available here.

Suggested citation:

UN Human Rights Committee, Daniel Billy et al. v. Australia, Communication No. 3624/2019, 22 September 2022, UN Doc. CCPR/C/135/D/3624/2019.

Categories
Adaptation Business responsibility Domestic court Emissions reductions/mitigation Sea-level rise Switzerland

Edy Mulyono and three others v. Holcim AG

Summary:
On 11 July 2022, a case was filed with the conciliation authority in the Swiss canton of Zug concerning the greenhouse gas emissions of the corporate cement giant Holcim AG. The case was brought by four Indonesian nationals, who live on the island of Pari and earn their livelihoods through fishing and tourism. Inspired by the RWE case, they argue that rising sea levels and floods, which are all caused or aggravated by climate change, are threatening their livelihoods. The cement industry is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, currently emitting approximately 8% of yearly global CO2 emissions. and Holcim is the market leader in this sector. On this basis, the plaintiffs seek compensation from Holcim for the damage to their property and for future damages. They also seek adaptation measures to protect themselves against future impacts, and argue that Holcim should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43% (compared to 2019 levels) by 2030, and 69% by 2040. This demands more rapid change than what is foreseen by the company’s own commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

Background of the claim:
The claim concerns the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the cement industry, which are largely made up of direct emissions. In a press conference, representatives for NGOs supporting the plaintiffs noted that 3/4 of Holcim’s emissions are direct emissions, as opposed to the largely indirect emissions created by the fossil fuel industry. The plaintiffs’ claim is based on references to climate attribution science, including reports by the IPCC, and the findings by the US Climate Accountability Institute that Holcim is responsible for .42% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1751.

With the support of Swiss Church Aid HEKS/EPER, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Indonesian environmental organization WALHI, the plaintiffs are invoking Swiss civil law, more specifically a violation of their personality rights and, tort law to argue that their human rights have been violated through the effects of the company’s emissions and that even more severe violations are forthcoming if Holcim does not reduce its emissions. They argue that the company should assume historical responsibility for its past emissions, but also future responsibility in the sense of rapidly reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Expected further developments:
As required under procedural law, the case has been brought as a request for arbitration. Arbitration proceedings are expected to commence in the fall of 2022. If the efforts at arbitration do not succeed in reaching a mutually agreeable solution, the case may proceed as a civil claim.

Further information:
For a press release on the case, see here.

For more information, see the dossier compiled by the supporting NGOs here.

Categories
2021 Children and young people Domestic court Emissions reductions/mitigation Fossil fuel extraction Imminent risk Indigenous peoples' rights Non-discrimination Right to life Right to property Sea-level rise United States of America

Aji P. and Others v. the State of Washington

Summary:
This case was brought by 13 young people aged between 8 and 18 who sued the US State of Washington, its Governor, and various other state agencies, arguing that the state had “injured and continue[d] to injure them by creating, operating, and maintaining a fossil fuel-based energy and transportation system that [the State] knew would result in greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, dangerous climate change, and resulting widespread harm.” In doing so, they invoked their “fundamental and inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, equal protection, and a healthful and pleasant environment, which includes a stable climate system that sustains human life and liberty.” They also invoked the impacts on indigenous peoples’ rights. The plaintiffs requested the judiciary to “[o]rder [the state] to develop and submit to the Court . . . an enforceable state climate recovery plan”.

A number of amici filed briefs in the case. For example, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Quinault Indian Nation, and Suquamish Tribe argued that local tribes were already seeing impacts on their traditional lands and abutting marine waters. The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW-US) noted the well-documented impacts of climate change on human and constitutional rights. The League of Women Voters of Washington argued that access to judicial action was particularly important for minors who did not enjoy access to the right to vote. And a group of environmental NGOs submitted that “the right to a healthful and pleasant environment underlies our continued ability to claim our explicitly-guaranteed rights to life and liberty.”

On 8 February 2021, the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington held that it “firmly believe[d] that the right to a stable environment should be
fundamental.” It also recognized “the extreme harm that greenhouse gas emissions inflict on the environment and its future stability.” However, it held that “it would be a violation of the separation of powers doctrine for the court to resolve the Youths’ claims.” It accordingly dismissed the claim.

On 6 October 2021, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington denied the petition for review in this case. González, C.J. (dissenting) noted that the plaintiffs “asked this court to recognize a fundamental right to a healthful and pleasant environment that may be inconsistent with our State’s maintenance of a fossil-fuel-based energy and transportation system that it knows will result in greenhouse gas emissions. These greenhouse gases hasten a rise in the earth’s temperature. This temperature change
foreshadows the potential collapse of our environment. In its place is an unstable climate system, conceivably unable to sustain human life and continued enjoyment of ordered liberty under law. Today, we have an opportunity to consider whether these are the sorts of harms that are remediable under Washington’s law and constitution. We should have granted review to decide that question”.

Categories
Imminent risk Indigenous peoples' rights International Court of Justice Paris Agreement Sea-level rise Vanuatu Vulnerability

Vanuatu’s Request for an ICJ Advisory Opinion

Summary:
In September 2021, during the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Vanuatu, Hon. Bob Loughman Weibur, announced that the country would build a coalition of States to seek an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As of February 2023, the initiative had received support from 105 co-sponsoring states.

The proposal aims to contest “environmental devastation and large-scale violations of human rights for the most vulnerable”. Under the slogan of “bringing the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court”, this initative was originally spearheaded by a group of students from the University of the South Pacific. As of July 2022, the alliance behind the initative included over 1500 civil society organisations in 130 countries. It also received the endorsement of the Organisation of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS).

In July 2022, Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change, Hon. Silas Bule Melve, clarified the country’s ambitions for the advisory opinion. He stated that “[t]his is not a court case, and we do not seek to assign blame. But we do seek a credible way to bolster climate ambition moving forward to save the Paris Agreement and our blue planet”. The Republic’s legal team in this endeavor is led by Julian Aguon and Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh of the Pacific law firm Blue Ocean Law.

Question to be put to the ICJ:

The resolution, which is open for co-sponsorship until its projected adoption by the General Assembly on 29 March 2023, decides, in accordance with Article 96 UN Charter, to request the ICJ, pursuant to Article 65 of its Statute, to render an advisory opinion on the following question:

“Having particular regard to the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the duty of due diligence, the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle of prevention of significant harm to the environment and the duty to protect and preserve the marine environment,

(a) What are the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases for States and for present and future generations;

(b) What are the legal consequences under these obligations for States where they, by their acts and omissions, have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, with respect to:

(i) States, including, in particular, small island developing States, which due to their geographical circumstances and level of development, are injured or specially affected by or are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change?

(ii) Peoples and individuals of the present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change?”

For more on this initiative, see the post on our blog by Pranav Ganesan.

Categories
Adaptation Australia Domestic court Imminent risk Indigenous peoples' rights Sea-level rise Uncategorized Vulnerability

Australian Torres Straits Islanders case

Summary:
In the Australian Torres Straits Islanders case, modelled on the Dutch Urgenda case, a group of indigenous Torres Strait Islanders living on islands off Australia’s coast initiated domestic class action proceedings before the Federal court of Australia to claim that the Australian government has failed to protect them from climate change, leading to the progressive destruction of their ancestral islands.

Context:
In another, separate climate claim, a group of eight Torres Strait islanders took a Communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2019, alleging that Australia had violated the human rights of low-lying islanders because of its failure to take climate action.

Petitioners:
This case was brought by two First Nations leaders on behalf of the remote Torres Strait islands of Boigu and Saibai. They brought the case on their own behalf and “on behalf of all persons who at any time during the period from about 1985 and continuing, are of Torres Strait Islander descent and suffered loss and damage as a result of the conduct of the Respondent”.

Arguments made:
Based on scientific evidence, the plaintiffs argue that climate change is already threatening their native title rights and distinctive customary culture. They allege that, due to the progression of climate change and the increasing storms and rising sea levels that result from this, they face an increasing threat of floods and of rising salt concentrations in their soil. Some islands, they argue, could become uninhabitable if the global temperature rises to levels more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. One of the plaintiffs noted that that his people have lived on the islands in question for over 65,000 years.

The plaintiffs allege that the Australian government owes a duty of care to Torres Strait Islanders. It must, in other words, take reasonable measures to protect them, their environment, their culture and their traditional way of life from the harms caused by climate change. Because current climate action and targets are not consistent with the best available climate science, they argue, this duty of care has been breached. They invoke the Torres Strait Treaty, which requires the Australian government to protect and preserve the marine environment in the region. The plaintiffs seek both mitigation and adaptation measures and rely on the duty of care recognized in the Sharma case.

Full text of the petition:
The full text of the petition is available at climatecasechart.com.

Categories
Domestic court Emissions reductions/mitigation European Convention on Human Rights France Paris Agreement Sea-level rise Uncategorized

Commune de Grande-Synthe v. France

Summary:
This case was brought to the French Conseil d’Etat by the municipality of Grande-Synthe, which is a low-lying coastal community, against the French government. The plaintiffs alleged that the government had taken insufficient action to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and invoked the European Convention on Human Rights, the Paris Agreement, and domestic environmental regulations.

Admissibility:
The case was declared admissible on 19 November 2020 by the Conseil d’Etat. The Government was given three months to justify its current approach to climate measures. The Conseil d’Etat indicated that the Paris Agreement, and France’s 40% reduction target by 2030 as opposed to 1990 emissions levels, would be used to interpret the State’s obligations.

Merits:
Pending

Remedies:
Pending

Separate opinions:
Pending

Implementation measures taken:
On 1 July 2021, it was announced that, in light of this case, the French Conseil d’État would require the Government to take measures before 31 March 2022 in order to reach the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions totalling 40% by the year 2030.

To achieve the reduction targets set out in the Paris Agreement, meaning a -40% reduction in emissions as compared to 1990 levels, the Government had previously adopted a reductions plan covering four time periods (2015-2018, 2019-2023, 2024-2028 and 2029-2033), each with its own reduction targets. The Conseil d’État observed in its decision of 1 July 2021 that the level of emissions measured in 2019 had respected the annual target set for the period of 2019-2023. However, the 0.9% decrease in emissions observed was too low when compared to the reduction objectives for the previous period (2015-2018), which were 1.9% per year, and compared to the objectives for the following period (2024-2028), which are 3% per year. Provisional data for 2020 might show a significant drop in emissions, but this must be to some extent due to pandemic-related restrictions and must therefore be regarded as “transitory”. It did not, by itself, guarantee that the reductions needed to achieve the 2030 target were being made. The Conseil d’État found that additional efforts were needed in the short term to achieve the target of 12% emissions reductions between 2024 and 2028.

Date:
Pending

Type of Forum:
Domestic

Status of case:
Pending

Suggested case citation:
Decision on the Admissibility: French Conseil d’Etat, Commune de Grande-Synthe and Others v. France, case no. 427301, Admissibility, 19 November 2020.

Links:
http://climatecasechart.com/climate-change-litigation/non-us-case/commune-de-grande-synthe-v-france/