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Roy v. Australia: MRG welcomes win for Wunna Nyiyaparli land rights 

5 September 2023

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) applauds the Human Rights Committee’s (the Committee) decision of 10 July 2023, condemning Australia for violating the human rights of the Wunna Nyiyaparli Indigenous People by nullifying their claim to their ancestral land. The Wunna Nyiyaparli were unable to fully participate in judicial proceedings determining their land rights due to their limited internet access, an issue for First Nations communities across Australia, and a lack of access to legal aid.

MRG welcomes the Committee’s affirmation that the exclusion of the Wunna Nyiyaparli from proceedings is an affront to the principles of equality before the court and the right to a fair trial. The verdict is a milestone in the broader defence of indigenous land rights and in promoting equitable access to justice. The decision recognizes the barriers faced by indigenous peoples in accessing justice and highlights the crucial need for their active participation in land-related adjudication.

‘We have waited for so long for a voice and finally we were being heard and the violations of our rights were being recognised. The UN decision has lifted part of our struggles and given our people a renewed hope for the future. I am happy that this decision will help other indigenous peoples who experience similar trials’, says Ailsa Roy, a Wunna Nyiyaparli elder representing the community in the submission of their case to the Committee.

MRG urges Australia to promptly implement the Committee’s decision and take immediate remedial measures, including reconsidering the Wunna Nyiyaparli’s Native Title Claim and ensuring that they effectively participate in the process.

The Committee emphasized that right to a fair trial and unfettered access to justice must be guaranteed. It ruled that denying indigenous peoples the opportunity to comment on evidence in determining their land rights constitutes a violation of their right to a fair trial. It underscored the necessity for State Parties to provide free legal aid in contexts beyond criminal proceedings to ensure meaningful participation.

The Wunna Nyiyaparli Indigenous People took their case to the Committee seeking its determination on whether Australia had breached various provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In a Native Titles Claim, filed by the Wunna Nyiyaparli and in which the ownership of their traditional territories was contested by another Nyiyaparli clan, financial constraints prevented the Wunna Nyiyaparli from hiring a lawyer. They were unable to access free legal aid under Australian law. Further, their limited access to the internet led to delayed email correspondence with the Court, making timely responses to court documents impossible.

The Wunna Nyiyaparli explained their predicament to the Court, requesting an adjournment to enable them to participate in the trial. Their plea was rejected, and the hearing proceeded without their participation. The Court subsequently ruled that the Wunna Nyiyaparli were not Nyiyaparli descendants, effectively nullifying their claim. Consequently, their Native Titles Claim was dismissed. The Court later conferred the title to the Wunna Nyiyaparli traditional land to a different Nyiyaparli clan.

Photo: Wunna Nyiyaparli elders and Ailsa Roy (front row, second from left). Photo courtesy of Ailsa Roy.