Home » Landmark case rules human rights violated by climate change inaction

Landmark case rules human rights violated by climate change inaction

by Madaline Dunn

This week, in a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Switzerland had violated the human rights of a group of Swiss women in its failure to implement sufficient measures to combat climate change. This is the first time an international court has ruled on climate change.

The case was brought forward by the association of the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection (KlimaSeniorinnen), which represents over 2,500 women aged 64 and over. 

Swiss Confederation “failed to comply with its duties”  

The group of women who launched the case nine years ago argued that their health is significantly affected by increasing temperatures caused by climate change. It was noted that many suffer health issues and “no longer dare” to leave their homes during the day and evening during heatwaves.

Indeed, research continues to show that the world is breaking climate record after climate record. Last year, for example, was the hottest on record, while March this year was the tenth hottest month in a row. 

Ultimately, the Court ruled that the Swiss Confederation had “failed to comply with its duties” under the Convention concerning climate change, noting that it encompasses a right to effective protection by the State authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, well-being and quality of life.”

“It is clear that future generations are likely to bear an increasingly severe burden of the consequences of present failures and omissions to combat climate change,” said Court President Siofra O’Leary.

Specifically, O’Leary highlighted the Swiss government’s “failure to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas emissions limitations.”

“The respondent state had previously failed to meet its past greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by failing to act in good time and in an appropriate and consistent manner.”

The Court did, however, dismiss two other cases, one brought forward by MEP Damien Carême, the former mayor of the municipality of Grande-Synthe and another by six Portuguese young people. 

The former claimed that France had taken insufficient steps to prevent global warming, but was dismissed as the claimant no longer resides in France. 

The latter meanwhile, brought forward by six young people aged 12-24, was launched against every EU member state, and claimed that the current and future severe effects of climate change, attributed to the member states, impact their lives, well-being, mental health and the peaceful enjoyment of their homes. 

However, this case was declared inadmissible. The Court outlined that there were “no grounds” in the Convention for the extension of their extraterritorial jurisdiction in the manner requested.

Ruling to have ripple effect

However, not only does Switzerland now have an obligation to implement this ruling, but the binding legal precedent will now also have to be considered by the other countries that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. 

It is expected that the ruling on Switzerland could also reverberate beyond this, with climate litigation only on the rise. 

“It will be of great importance for further climate lawsuits against states and companies worldwide and increase their chances of success. The judgement shows citizens, judges and governments across Europe what is needed in terms of climate protection in order to respect human rights,” commented Cordelia Bähr, the lead lawyer for the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection.

Speaking on the case, Elisabeth Stern, a member of the KlimaSeniorinnen, told BBC News: “We know statistically that in 10 years we will be gone. So whatever we do now, we are not doing for ourselves, but for the sake of our children and our children’s children.”

This was echoed by Co-President of the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection, Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, who said: “This ruling is not just a victory for the Senior Women for Climate Protection. Our victory is a victory for all generations. Especially for the Portuguese youth, whose generation will be beneficiaries of a long-term improved climate. The presence of the young people in the courtroom showed the judges the face of human rights for the future.” 

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg also joined the women at the Court in Strasbourg this week and said that this is “only the beginning of climate litigation.” 

Case sparks backlash

However, alongside the celebrations, a number of parties have criticised the ruling, claiming the politicisation of the Court. 

In a statement, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party called the ruling a “scandal.”

“Ideology and denial of reality clearly reign in European courthouses. The role of the courts is to rule the law and not to play politics,” the post from UDC Suisse read. 

Similarly, the Swiss paper Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ) described the ruling as “activist jurisprudence”: “Absurd verdict against Switzerland: Strasbourg pursues climate policy from the judges’ bench,” the newspaper wrote.

The Swiss President, Viola Amherd was quoted as saying: “I would like to know what the grounds for it are. Sustainability is very important to Switzerland, biodiversity is very important to Switzerland, the net zero target is very important to Switzerland. We are working on those and will continue to work on them with all our strength. This ruling does nothing to change that.”

The ruling has also stirred grumblings in the UK. Claire Coutinho, the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, called the ruling “concerning” in a post on (formerly Twitter) and inferred that Strasbourg judges had overstepped in their decision. 

“Elected politicians are best placed to make those decisions,” said Coutinho. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick echoed this, dubbing the decision “profoundly undemocratic.”

Further, according to some reports, following the ruling, senior Conservatives called on Rishi Sunak to “take Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).”

Against this backdrop of backlash is data that people want accelerated action on climate from governments. Indeed, a recent survey by Gallup, published in Nature Climate Change, found that of 130,000 people from 125 countries it polled, 89 per cent want stronger climate action by governments. This year is also the biggest electoral year in history, the outcomes of which will undoubtedly shape climate policy. 

In a speech at London’s Chatham House yesterday, UN climate chief Simon Stiell alluded to this fact. 

“The only surefire way to get climate at the top of the cabinet agenda is if enough people raise their voices,” said Stiell, who called on “ordinary people everywhere to take action: “Every voice matters. Yours have never been more important. If you want bolder climate action, now is the time to make yours count.”

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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