Swiss women win historic victory at Europe’s top human rights court

By Equipo
6 Min Read

Members of Swiss association Senior Women for Climate Protection react after the announcement of decisions after a hearing of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to decide in three separate cases if states are doing enough in the face of global warming in rulings that could force them to do more, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on April 9, 2024. 

Frederick Florin | Afp | Getty Images

Europe’s top human rights court on Tuesday ruled in favor of more than 2,000 elderly Swiss women who argued that their government’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis were insufficient to protect them from more frequent and intense heat waves.

The European Court of Human Right’s (ECHR) decision was hailed by campaigners as a ground-breaking moment that could serve as a blueprint for other climate litigation cases argued on human rights grounds.

The impact of the decision is expected to be felt far beyond Europe’s borders.

In an unappealable ruling, the ECHR found that the Swiss government had violated the human right to respect for private and family life and failed to comply with its duties under the convention regarding climate change.

The decision could compel the Swiss government to revise its climate policies, including upgrading its near-term emissions reductions targets to align with the landmark Paris Agreement.

«This is not just a win for these inspirational claimants but a huge victory for those everywhere seeking to use the power of the law to hold their government accountable for climate inaction,» Vesselina Newman, fundamental rights lead at environmental law firm ClientEarth, said in a statement.

«This result from one of the world’s highest courts sends a clear message: governments must take real action on emissions to safeguard the human rights of their citizens.»

Climate activists Catarina dos Santos Mota (L), Greta Thunberg (2ndL) and Martim Agostinho (2ndR) hold placards during a rally before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decides in three separate cases if states are doing enough in the face of global warming in rulings that could force them to do more, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on April 9, 2024. 

Frederick Florin | Afp | Getty Images

Newman said that the court ruling was a European first for climate litigation. She added that judges across the continent would now have to apply the new principles to a growing number of climate cases, while signatory states have a clear legal duty to ensure their climate action is sufficient to protect human rights.

«Human-rights based climate cases are before courts in Brazil, Peru, Australia and South Korea, with these rulings potentially having an impact for those crucial proceedings as well,» Newman said.

«We will be combing through this landmark judgment over the coming days to assess the full legal ramifications of their victory,» she added.

The Swiss Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Swiss President Viola Amherd on Tuesday declined to comment in detail on the ruling, Reuters reported, saying she would first need to read the ECHR’s decision and said climate policy was a top priority.

The ECHR on Tuesday ruled that two other similar climate cases were inadmissible: one was brought by six Portuguese youths petitioning against more than 30 European governments and another was submitted by a former mayor of a French town.

‘A historic judgment’

«Today’s historic judgment in Verein Klimaseniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland – the first ruling by an international human rights court on the inadequacy of States’ climate action – leaves no doubt,» Joie Chowdhury, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said in a statement.

«The climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and States have human rights obligations to act urgently and effectively and in line with the best available science to prevent further devastation and harm to people and the environment,» Chowdhury said.

Johan Rockström, one of the world’s most influential Earth scientists and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research PIK, said Tuesday that the ECHR ruling reaffirmed why governments should take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

«After more than three years of legal proceedings, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a state – in this case Switzerland – is neglecting to act properly on the human caused climate crisis thereby violating their citizens’ human rights,» Rockström said.

«But these rulings are not just about one state: They mark the first time an international court has ruled on climate change, and will have important implications for all politicians and national leaders in particular,» he added.

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