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Climate: ECHR judges side with Swiss group in rights ruling

April 9, 2024

Judges have been ruling on complaints about national failures to curb carbon emissions. The court ruled in favor of a Swiss women's group, saying some rights had been violated, but threw out two similar actions.

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg talks with Rosmarie Wydler-Walti, of the Swiss elderly women group Senior Women for Climate Protection outside the ECHR in Strasbourg, April 9, 2024
Tuesday's ruling is the first time the ECHR has issued a ruling on emissions and climate changeImage: Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Tuesday delivered rulings in a group of landmark climate change cases aimed at making national governments meet treaty obligations to cut greenhouse emissions.

In one of the three cases, it upheld a complaint by a group of elderly Swiss women that government failures to properly oversee emissions did violate their human rights.

While activists have enjoyed past success in domestic proceedings, the verdict marks the first time an international court made such a ruling on climate change.

Elizabeth Stern, a board member of the group, called the association of the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection, told DW that when the court's decision was announced, it was a "wonderful moment" for her.

"It's just incredible after eight years to have a final judgement," she said, adding that it was "a long journey." 

Stern said she hopes that their victory will be an inspiration to other groups.

"I would imagine right now our government is not too happy because they really get a lot of work," she said. 

What did the court say?

In a case brought by some 2,000 members of Senior Women for Climate Protection, judges found that the Swiss government had violated some human rights by missing past emissions reduction targets. 

The women had protested their government's "woefully inadequate" efforts to fight climate change. They said older women were at particular risk of dying during heat waves and demanded a ruling that would slash fossil fuel emissions much faster than planned.

Judges agreed there "had been critical gaps in the process of putting in place the relevant domestic regulatory framework."

These, the court said, included "a failure by the Swiss authorities to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas emissions limitations."

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Christina Voigt, a professor of law at the University of Oslo, told DW that the ruling was very important even if it "does not set a precedent for any other case."

"It's the first authoritative judgement we have from a supranational court that directly links humans rights violations to insufficient or non-ambitious action on climate change," she said.

"It's a very important indication that governments have to step up their game to protect human rights … And now we are told that they have to take ambitious measures to tackle climate change too, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, having effective measures in place to get there and to ensure they meet those goals," she added.

Disappointment for Portuguese group

However, the court ruled inadmissible a case brought by six Portuguese youths seeking to force 32 European governments to take more ambitious action to curb climate change.

The young activists said the rising temperatures threaten their right to life. The group's case was against every EU country, plus Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Russia.

The court's dismissal of the case referred to "the fact that the applicants had not pursued any legal avenue in Portugal concerning their complaints," and that there was no territorial jurisdiction when it came to the other 31 countries.

Ex-mayor's complaint dismissed

Judges also ruled against a French former mayor who had sought to force the government to do more to fight climate change.

Damien Careme, who was mayor of the coastal community of Grande-Synthe and went on to become a member of the European Parliament, filed a suit attacking the alleged "deficiencies" of the French state. He argued that such shortcomings raised the risk of his town being submerged under the North Sea.

However, the court ruled that, because he had no longer lived in France and had no "relevant links" to the town, he could not claim victim status.

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'Just the beginning,' says Thunberg

The verdicts had been eagerly anticipated. Climate activists including Sweden's Greta Thunberg had gathered outside the court building to await the decisions on Tuesday morning.

The Swiss association's lawyer, Cordelia Bahr, said the court has "established that climate protection was a human right."

"It's a huge victory for us and a legal precedent for all the states of the Council of Europe," she said.

Thunberg, founder of the Fridays for Future activist group, said the ruling on Switzerland was "only the beginning."

"All over the world more and more people are taking their government to court, holding them responsible for their actions," Thunberg said.

DW's Bernd Riegert, speaking from the court, said the fact that climate change had been recognized as a matter for the ECHR represented a first.

"There are more cases pending here in Strasbourg and also pending in other courts all over the world and this could be a kind of guidance," said Riegert.

What did the cases have in common?

The plaintiffs complained their governments were not doing enough to tackle climate change.

Their lawyers wanted the ECHR to rule that political leaders have a legal duty to limit global warming to a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

The threshold is in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Verdicts by the Grand Chamber of the ECHR's 17 judges can establish precedents for the Convention's 46 signatories.

Lawyers for the activists had argued that any political and civil protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which the ECHR upholds, are meaningless if the planet is uninhabitable.

Legal teams for individual countries facing the legal challenges said the blame for climate change could not rest with individual states, demanding the cases be dismissed.

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rc/ab (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)