The Torres Strait Treaty

The Torres Strait Treaty was signed in December 1978 and entered into force in February 1985. It defines the border between Australia and Papua New Guinea and provides a framework for the management of the common border area. Both Australia and Papua New Guinea have liaison officers, based respectively at Thursday Island and Daru, who consult regularly on the implementation of the Treaty at the local level.

Full text of the Torres Strait Treaty

As well as defining the maritime boundaries between Papua New Guinea and Australia, the Treaty protects the ways of life of traditional inhabitants in the Torres Strait Protected Zone (TSPZ). Subsidiary management arrangements for commercial fisheries in the Zone have also been put in place under the Treaty. The Treaty is recognised as one of the most creative solutions in international law to a boundary problem touching on the lives of traditional inhabitants.

There are two main boundaries described by the Treaty. They are:

  • the Seabed Jurisdiction Line. Australia has rights to all things on or below the seabed south of this line and Papua New Guinea has the same rights north of the line.
  • the Fisheries Jurisdiction Line. Australia has rights over swimming fish south of this line and Papua New Guinea has the same rights north of the line. The two countries have agreed under the Treaty to share these rights.

Australian Maritime Zones in the Torres Strait

The Seabed Jurisdiction Line is the main boundary between Australia and Papua New Guinea as far as islands are concerned. However, the following islands which lie north of that line also belong to Australia: Anchor Cay, Aubusi Island, Black Rocks, Boigu Island, Bramble Cay, Dauan Island, Deliverance Island, East Cay, Kaumag Island, Kerr Islet, Moimi Island, Pearce Cay, Saibai Island, Turnagain Island and Turu Cay.

Australian islands north of the Seabed Jurisdiction Line also have their own territorial seas of three nautical miles unless otherwise specified in the Treaty.

What is the Torres Strait Protected Zone (TSPZ)?

The Protected Zone is an area of the Torres Strait recognised by Australia and Papua New Guinea as needing special attention.

The main reason for the Protected Zone is so that Torres Strait Islanders and the coastal people of Papua New Guinea can carry on their traditional way of life. For example, traditional people from both countries may move freely (without passports or visas) for traditional activities in the Protected Zone.

The formation of the Protected Zone has also helped to preserve and protect the land, sea and air of the Torres Strait, including the native plant and animal life.

What is free movement for traditional activities?

A special provision of the Treaty allows free movement (without passports or visas) between Australia and Papua New Guinea for traditional activities. This is only for Torres Strait Islanders and for coastal people from Papua New Guinea who live in and keep the traditions of the region.

Traditional inhabitants from Australia and Papua New Guinea, in consultation with their governments, agreed on 13 Papua New Guinea villages to have free movement privileges under the Treaty. A formal note from Australia acknowledging the full list of Papua New Guinea villages, which have traditional ties with the Torres Strait Islands in the Protected Zone was exchanged with Papua New Guinea on 28 June 2000. Papua New Guinea exchanged its note with Australia on 25 July 2000, thereby confirming the understanding with effect from that date.

PNG traditional inhabitants come from Bula, Mari, Jarai, Tais, Buji/Ber, Sigabadaru, Mabadauan, Old Mawatta, Ture Ture, Kadawa, Katatai, Parama and Sui (the 13 PNG Treaty Villages). They can make traditional visits (free movement without passports) into the Protected Zone. PNG traditional inhabitants can travel south into Australia as far as the 10 degrees 30 minutes South latitude (near Number One Reef).
Australian traditional inhabitants come from Badu, Boigu, Poruma (Coconut Island), Erub (Darnley Island), Dauan, Kubin, St Pauls, Mabuiag, Mer (Murray Island), Saibai, Ugar (Stephen Island), Warraber (Sue Island), Iama (Yam Island) and Masig (Yorke Island). They can make traditional visits to the PNG Treaty Villages and travel north as far as the 9 degrees South latitude (just north of Daru).

There are conditions for travel under the traditional movement provisions of the Treaty. See Guidelines for Traditional Visitors Travelling Under the Torres Strait Treaty.

What does the Treaty say about fisheries?

A part of the Treaty deals with commercial fisheries. In brief it:

  • makes sure that commercial fishing in the Protected Zone is in harmony with traditional fishing.
  • provides for commercial fishing by both Australia and Papua New Guinea.
  • includes arrangements for the sharing of commercial catch.
  • allows both countries to work together in licensing and policing as well as in the preservation, protection and management of fisheries.

Which government departments are responsible for the Treaty?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has overall responsibility for the Torres Strait Treaty. It has established the Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Office on Thursday island. There is also a Papua New Guinea Border Liaison Office on Daru Island.

There are consultative mechanisms in place to progress the implementation of the Treaty. These are:

Traditional Inhabitants' Meeting (TIM)

As part of the liaison arrangements under the Torres Strait Treaty, Article 18: 2(a), 3(a)+(b), and the government's obligation to keep traditional inhabitants informed of relevant developments in (and in the vicinity of) the Protected Zone, the Traditional Inhabitants Meeting (TIM) was formed. This is a forum for traditional inhabitants of both countries to discuss issues and activity in the region, and report concerns to government through their Treaty Liaison Officer.

Joint Advisory Council (JAC)

The JAC was established under Article 19 of the Treaty as an advisory body of Australian and PNG officials, together with traditional inhabitant representatives. Meetings are held alternately in Australia and PNG. The functions of the JAC are to:

  • seek solutions to problems arising at the local level that are not resolved by the Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Officer and the Papua New Guinea Border Officer located on Thursday Island and Daru respectively
  • consider and make recommendations to the Parties on any developments or proposals which might affect the protection of the traditional way of life and livelihood of the traditional inhabitants, their free movement, performance of traditional activities and exercise of traditional customary rights
  • review from time to time as necessary, and to report and to make recommendations to the Parties on any matters relevant to the effective implementation of this Treaty, including the provisions relating to the protection and preservation of the marine environment, and fauna and flora in and in the vicinity of the Protected Zone.

In the exercise of its functions, the JAC is required to ensure that the traditional inhabitants are consulted and given full and timely opportunity to comment on matters of concern to them, and that their views are conveyed in the Council's reports and recommendations. The JAC is required to transmit its report and recommendations to the Foreign Ministers of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

How can I find out more about the Torres Strait Treaty?

Contact the Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Office:

PO Box 93
Thursday Island QLD 4875

07 4069 1495