Overturning aqua nullius and reaffirming the Indigenous rule of law(s)

Image of fishermen silhouetted by sunset, supplied by Lirrwi Indigenous Tourism in Arnhem Land NT

Event details


Date & time

Tuesday 04 April 2017


Seminar Room 1.04, Coombs Extension Building (8), Fellows Road, ANU
ANU Canberra


Virginia Marshall


+61 (0)2 6125 3948

In her book, Overturning aqua nullius: Securing Aboriginal Water Rights (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2017), Virginia Marshall argues that Aboriginal water rights require legal recognition as property rights, and that water access and water infrastructure are integral to successful economic enterprise in Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal peoples’ social, cultural and economic certainty rests on their right to control and manage customary water, both economic and cultural.

Drawing on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Virginia argues that the reservation of Aboriginal water rights needs to be prioritised above the water rights and interests of other groups. It is only then that we can sweep away the injustice of aqua nullius and provide the first Australians with full recognition and status of their water rights and interests.

Virginia has argued that “the characterization of Aboriginal property rights preceded the conceptualization of western property interests in Australia, however the Aboriginal ontological construction of property remains marginalized as ‘special’ and ‘sui generis’ in nature and that language can act as a barrier in cross-cultural communication and often complex ideas cannot be easily translated between Indigenous and western normative systems”.

We will examine the case for Australia’s formal recognition of the Indigenous rule of law(s) and explore “the challenge for governments in the context of human rights and whether they are willing to concede that the omission of Indigenous peoples water rights and interests (what Virginia refers to as aqua nullius) is a repugnant concept which diminishes all Australians”.

About the Speaker

Dr Virginia Marshall is principal solicitor/director with Triple BL Legal in rural Southern Highlands, and active committee member with the NSW Law Society, as Acting Chair the Indigenous Issues Committee. She has served on the Human Rights, Alternative Dispute Resolution and Law Practice and Litigation Committees. She is the Chair of the Diversity Committee and Executive Member of the NSW Women’s Lawyers Association.

Virginia represents her legal firm as Partner Investigator with an ARC Linkage Grant Project (2016-2019) to advance the protection of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge. She is proud of her Indigenous heritage and has extensive practice and knowledge in Indigenous affairs. She is recognised as Australia’s leading academic scholar in Aboriginal water rights/law and her award winning book was launched in 2017 by the Hon. Michael Kirby. Her passion is in addressing issues of social justice, human rights and law.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet