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‘A vital and historic precedent’

European Court of Human Rights sets vital precedent with ruling in landmark climate case
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Classic view of the national flag of Switzerland waving in the wind against blue sky and clouds on a sunny day in summer on the First of August, the national holiday of the Swiss Confederation

Yesterday (09 April), the European Court of Human Rights held that the Swiss government had violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to do enough to combat climate change.

The Court ruled, by a majority of 16 votes to one, that there had been a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights and, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 6 § 1 (access to court) in the case of Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland.

Global warming and human rights

The case concerned a complaint by four women and a Swiss association, Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, representing more than 2,500 older Swiss women concerned about the consequences of global warming on their living conditions and health.

They consider that the Swiss authorities are not taking sufficient action, despite their duties under the Convention, to mitigate the effects of climate change and argued that their government’s failure to adequately mitigate global warming violated their human rights to health and life and puts them at risk of dying during heatwaves.

The Court found that Article 8 of the Convention encompasses a right to effective protection by the State authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, wellbeing and quality of life.

Climate change obligations

The Court found that the Swiss Confederation had failed to comply with its duties (‘positive obligations’) under the Convention concerning climate change.

There had been critical gaps in the process of putting in place the relevant domestic regulatory framework, including a failure by the Swiss authorities to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limitations.

Switzerland had also failed to meet its past GHG emission reduction targets.

While recognising that national authorities enjoy wide discretion in relation to implementation of legislation and measures, the Court held, on the basis of the material before it, that the Swiss authorities had not acted in time and in an appropriate way to devise, develop and implement relevant legislation and measures in this case.

‘The ECtHR has set a vital and historic precedent today with its ruling in the case involving the Swiss women by finding that the Swiss government had failed to comply with its duties under the European Convention concerning climate change, including failing to set clear limits on greenhouse gas emissions and not meeting its past greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

‘The determination and tenacity of the applicants in all three cases seeking climate justice through courts was both remarkable and encouraging. We especially recognise the courage of the young people involved as they looked to protect not only their future but the future of generations to come.

‘The Swiss case ruling strengthens legal pathways to achieving climate justice through the ECtHR. It is hugely significant that the ECtHR recognized the harm caused to the applicants by climate change and that the Swiss government was doing too little to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adequately protect them.

‘The ECtHR’s ruling sends a powerful message to policymakers in European countries that states must intensify their efforts to combat climate change. We note that the decisions of the ECtHR to dismiss the other two other climate-related cases was based on procedural considerations, rather than on the respective merits of each case.
‘Strategic litigation can help to deliver climate justice and protect the rights of billions from global warming, especially the most marginalised, and will yield benefits – as we have witnessed today with the Swiss case.’

Amnesty International’s Head of Strategic Litigation

The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was universally recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2022. It’s believed that the decision will set a precedent for future climate lawsuits.

Amnesty International is part of a coalition calling for the adoption of an additional protocol on the right to the European Convention on Human Rights which would help reinforce and clarify the ECtHR’s jurisprudence on environmental protection, including climate change.

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