Top European court hands Swiss women victory in landmark climate ruling

Verdict will have ripple effect in Europe and beyond, likely setting precedent for how courts deal with climate cases.

Protesters hold pennants during a rally before the European Court of Human Rights issued three verdicts related to climate change, in Strasbourg, France, on April 9, 2024 [Frederick Florin/AFP]Published On 9 Apr 20249 Apr 2024

Europe’s top rights court has ruled in favour of a group of elderly Swiss women who argued that their government’s efforts to combat climate change were inadequate and put them at greater risk of death from heatwaves.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Switzerland was not doing enough to tackle climate change and that weak policies violate fundamental human rights, in its first such verdict against a state on the issue.

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But it was a partial victory for environmental activists as two other cases, from Portugal and France, were declared inadmissible on procedural grounds.

The case was brought by about 2,500 women, aged 73 on average, of the Senior Women for Climate Protection. Four of its members complained about the “failings of the Swiss authorities” in terms of climate protection that could “seriously harm” their health.

The ruling could have a ripple effect across Europe and beyond, setting a binding precedent for how some courts deal with the rising tide of climate litigation argued on the basis of human rights infringements.

The court found that Switzerland had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”, according to the ruling.

Court President Siofra O’Leary said the Swiss government failed to put in place sufficient domestic policies to tackle climate change.

Bruna Molinari, a member of the group that brought the case, was among the crowd outside the court. “I’m 82 and I won’t see the effects of the decisions today,” she said. “[But] politicians need to change.”

Global civic movement Avaaz said the court’s ruling had opened a new chapter in climate litigation.

“The Swiss ruling sets a crucial legally binding precedent serving as a blueprint for how to successfully sue your own government over climate failures,” said Ruth Delbaere, legal campaigns director at Avaaz.

Swiss President Viola Amherd declined to comment on the ruling but said climate policy was a top priority for her country. The Swiss government said it will analyse the ruling and review future measures.

The Swiss verdict, which cannot be appealed, could compel the government to take greater action on reducing emissions, including revising its 2030 emissions reduction targets to get in line with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Based in Strasbourg, France, the ECHR is a court of the Council of Europe which has 46 member states. It is not affiliated with the European Union.

‘Their win is a win for us too’

The ECHR threw out two similar cases, the first brought by six Portuguese youth, aged 12 to 24, against 32 governments – every EU member, plus Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Russia.

It said all remedies at the national level had not yet been exhausted before filing the complaint. Russia was expelled from the council after it invaded Ukraine but cases against it are still heard at the court.

“I really hoped that we would win against all the countries so obviously I’m disappointed that this didn’t happen,” said Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese youngsters.

“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!”

In a third case, the court rejected a claim from a former French mayor that the inaction of the French state posed the risk of his town being submerged under the North Sea. The court found he was not a victim in the case as he had moved to Brussels.

In all three cases, lawyers argued that the political and civil protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights are meaningless if the planet is uninhabitable.

Earlier on Tuesday, Europe’s climate monitor said March 2024 was the hottest on record and sea surface temperatures also hit a “shocking” new high.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies