It’s hard to believe it was just 25 years ago that the momentous legal case recognising the land rights of the Meriam people, took place here in Australia.
The Mabo Case, as it is known today, challenged the concept of ‘terra nullius’ or land belonging to no one and claimed native title to the Murray Islands.
In 1974, while working as a grounds keeper at James Cook University, Eddie Mabo learned that what he thought of as his people’s traditional land was actually owned by the Government. This discovery lead him to challenge the land ownership laws in Australia.
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The case began in 1982 on the grounds that the Meriam people had:
- Continuously inhabited and exclusively possessed these lands
- Lived in permanent settled communities
- Had their own political and social organisation
On these grounds, the Mabo case sought recognition of the Meriam people’s rights to this land.
It took ten years, but finally on 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled that the lands were not terra nullius and that the Meriam people were “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”.
The High Court recognised the fact that Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs. Unfortunately, Mabo died of cancer just months before the ruling was made.
Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards, together with the Reverend Dave Passi, Sam Passi (deceased), James Rice (deceased), Celuia Mapo Salee (deceased) and Barbara Hocking. The award was in recognition “of their long and determined battle to gain justice for their people” and the “work over many years to gain legal recognition for indigenous people’s rights”. – source.
The new law of native title replaced the former concept of terra nullius. In recognition, the High Court changed the law in Australia to establish the Native Title Act 1993, paving way for claims by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take back their traditional rights to their land.
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