A United Nations committee found on Friday that Australia had violated the human rights of a group of islanders off its north coast by failing to adequately protect them from the impacts of climate change.
The complaint, filed over three years ago by eight Torres Strait Islanders and their children, is one of a growing body of climate cases being brought around the world on human rights grounds and the ruling is expected to embolden others.
"This decision marks a significant development as the committee has created a pathway for individuals to assert claims where national systems have failed to take appropriate measures to protect those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of their human rights," UN Committee member Hélène Tigroudja said.
The islanders argued that Australia's inaction on climate change amounts to violations of their rights to culture, life and family set out in a UN Treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Rising sea levels have already damaged food sources and ancestral burial sites, scattering human remains across the islands, they said.
Australia had called for the case to be dismissed, saying there was insufficient evidence that the consequences of climate change would affect the islanders' enjoyment of their rights.
Torres Strait Islanders are part of Australia's indigenous population, along with Aboriginal people, who live on small clusters of low-lying islands dotted between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
The case was filed when the former conservative government, seen as a laggard in the battle against climate change, was in power. Since then, parliament has passed legislation on emissions cuts and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has visited the islands this year.