Torres Strait Islanders are Indigenous Australians who live on small clusters of low-lying islands 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.
In 2019, eight Torres Strait Islanders and their children filed a complaint under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Islanders said their homes are at risk of being submerged by rising sea levels and that food sources and ancestral burial sites have already been damaged, scattering human remains.
In its judgement, the UN committee said Australia had violated two of three human rights pertaining to culture and family life set out in the covenant.
It called for Australia to provide the Islanders with an effective remedy.
There is no means of enforcing the committee’s decision, but the UN said that governments generally comply with the committee's findings.
Australia's attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told the Reuters news agency that the Albanese government was working with the Islanders on climate change but he did not indicate what remedies are being discussed.
The new Labor government in Australia has taken steps to address climate change but scientists say it has not gone far enough and will have to do more, including not allowing new coal mines to open, which it has shown no inclination to do.
"The Australian government is considering the committee's views and will provide its response in due course," Dreyfus said, in a statement that provided no reassurance that to the Islanders that their successful complaint would trigger the kind of action required to address their concerns.
But the Torres Strait Islanders were pleased with their victory.
"I know that our ancestors are rejoicing knowing that Torres Strait Islander voices are being heard throughout the world through this landmark case," said Yessie Mosby, a landowner on Masig island.
"This win gives us hope that we can protect our island homes, culture and traditions for our kids and future generations to come," he said.
The environmental organisation, Client Earth, who worked with the claimants said this was the first legal action brought by climate-vulnerable inhabitants of small islands against a nation state and it established several precedents.
Sources: Reuters, Oxfam, CoastAdapt
Further reading: Case study - Adapting to sea-level rise in the Torres Strait