Swiss Government’s Climate Inaction Violates Human Rights, Rules Top European Court

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In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of a group of Swiss women, who said their government violated human rights by taking inadequate action on climate change. However, the court also threw out two other similar cases.

On what was a milestone day for global climate lawsuits in Strasbourg, France, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Swiss government’s inaction on climate change violates human rights, while rejecting similar claims made by French and Portuguese citizens in separate cases.

This was the first such ruling by an international court, with the ECHR acknowledging that weak climate policies can be in breach of the human rights set out in the European Convention. Despite the defeat of the other two cases, the verdict sets a legal precedent for future litigation on how the climate crisis affects people’s right to a safe planet, and amps up pressure on governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“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 ECHR president Síofra O’Leary.

Why the ECHR ruled in favour of Swiss climate activists

echr climate change
Courtesy: Shervine Nafissi

The French suit was brought by MEP Damien Carême, who argued that France’s inadequate efforts to mitigate climate change violated his rights to life and privacy and family life. The case was filed when he was the mayor of Grand-Synthe, a coastal French town vulnerable to flooding. But the court rejected the case because he no longer lives there.

The Portuguese case, meanwhile, was filed by six youngsters who sued 32 European countries for failing to avert the climate crisis and its effects, which they said threatened their right to life and discriminated against them based on their age. The ECHR refused to admit it on the grounds that applicants can’t bring cases against countries other than Portugal, and added that they hadn’t pursued legal options within Portugal.

As for the Swiss suit, it was filed by the KlimaSeniorinnen, a group of 2,400 elderly women whose average age is 74. The eight-year legal battle saw the organisation accuse the Swiss government of not doing enough to combat climate change. They argued that their rights are especially infringed on as they’re most affected by increasingly frequent extreme heat events, citing a UN IPCC report revealing that women and older adults are among the demographics facing the highest risks of temperature-related deaths during heatwaves.

Unlike the other two cases, the ECHR agreed with the KlimaSeniorinnen, who said Switzerland violated their right to life by failing to cut emissions that can limit global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. The court ruled that the Swiss government had failed to comply with its duties under the European Convention concerning climate change.

O’Leary noted that there were critical gaps in the process of putting in place the relevant domestic regulatory framework. “This included a failure to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas emissions limitations,” she said. “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 ECHR further noted that Swiss courts hadn’t provided convincing reasons as to why they considered it unnecessary to examine the KilmaSeniorinnen’s complaints, adding that they had failed to take into consideration the compelling scientific evidence concerning climate change and hadn’t taken the complaints seriously.

Swiss president Viola Amherd wasn’t impressed with the verdict, 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.”

But the country now has a legal duty to take greater action against climate change – its current commitments outline a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, from a 1990 baseline. And if it doesn’t update its climate policies, further litigation and financial penalties could follow.

ECHR ruling sets legal precedent for climate change lawsuits

The ECHR rejects about 90% of all applications it receives, but fast-tracked the three climate cases due to their urgent nature. In fact, it delayed hearings on six other climate cases pending the three rulings on Tuesday. These include a lawsuit in Norway that accuses the government of violating human rights by issuing new oil and gas exploration licenses beyond 2035.

The ECHR’s unprecedented decision will have a ripple effect on future climate cases, establishing a binding legal precedent for all 46 member states of the Council of Europe, which could face similar lawsuits that they’re likely to lose.

“We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond. The ruling reinforces the vital role of courts – both international and domestic – in holding governments to their legal obligations to protect human rights from environmental harm,” said Joie Chowdhury, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law. “While today we did not see ideal outcomes in all the three cases, overall today is a watershed legal moment for climate justice and human rights.”

“I really hoped that we would win against all the countries so obviously I’m disappointed that this didn’t happen,” said Sofia Oliveira, a 19-year-old applicant in the Portugal case. “But the most important thing is that the Court has said in the Swiss women’s case that governments must cut their emissions more to protect human rights. So, their win is a win for us too and a win for everyone.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the EU Commission (which Switzerland is not a part of), said: “The Commission takes note of these rulings and will of course be studying them very carefully. But regardless of the legal arguments, what these cases do is they remind us of the high importance and urgency which our citizens attach to climate action.”

Climate change litigation has been on the up for a few years now, spanning countries like the NetherlandsPakistan, the UK, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Brazil, Peru, South Korea and New Zealand. Last month, an Indian court ruled that citizens have the right to be free from the adverse impact of climate change, while in August, youth climate activists in Montana, US registered a legal victory after a judge ruled that the state’s fossil fuel policy was violating their right to a clean and healthful environment.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was part of a gathering outside the court called the Swiss government’s inaction “a betrayal beyond words”. “This is only the beginning of climate litigation,” she said. “The results of this can mean in no way that we lean back. This means that we have to fight even more, since this is only the beginning. Because in a climate emergency, everything is at stake.”


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

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