Swiss Women Win Landmark Climate Victory

News Excerpt:

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Switzerland violated its citizens’ human rights by failing to combat climate change adequately.

Background of the case:

  • The case was brought against Switzerland by KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Association of Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland) in 2016.
    • KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz is a group of women climate activists all above the age of 64.
  • The women claimed that the Swiss government’s inadequate climate policies violate their right to life and other guarantees under the European Convention on Human Rights. 
    • The convention is an international agreement to protect human rights and political freedoms in Europe.
  • The petitioners built their case by partly relying on their medical vulnerability as senior citizens to extreme heat caused by climate change. 
  • They cited the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a United Nations body that assesses the science related to climate change.
    • The reports “show that the Swiss population of senior women — especially those over 75 are more prone to heat-related medical problems like ‘dehydration, hyperthermia, fatigue, loss of consciousness, heat cramps and heat strokes’”.
  • As a result, the case was filed only by senior women, although they acknowledged that older men, people with diseases, and small children also suffer from heat waves and other climate effects.

Ruling of the court:

  • The ECHR noted that Article 8 of the convention “encompasses a right for individuals to effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life.”
  • According to the court, the Swiss government violated the convention as it did not enact adequate laws to combat climate change impacts and failed to meet greenhouse gas (GHG) emission goals.
    • In 2017, Switzerland committed to cutting emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050.
  • The Court President said: “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”.

Significance of the ruling of ECHR:

  • The ruling establishes a binding legal precedent for the 46 countries that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. 
    • The ECHR’s verdict applies to 46 member states, including the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), and various other non-EU countries
    • This means that any climate and human rights case brought before a judge in Europe’s national courts will now have to consider the ECHR’s judgement in their decision. 
    • It may also encourage citizens and communities to file similar cases in countries that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • The Swiss government is now obliged to update its climate change policies, but the ECHR cannot tell authorities what policies to implement.
    • Although the ruling doesn’t provide a specific injunction or any specific direction — it just says that you have to be more consistent with what climate science says.
  • The verdict could also influence other pending climate change cases before the ECHR. 
    • There are six such cases, including a lawsuit against the Norwegian government that has accused it of violating human rights by granting new licences for oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea beyond 2035.

Climate litigation across the globe:

  • According to the Global Climate Litigation Report: 2023 Status Review, as of December 2022, there have been 2,180 climate-related cases filed in 65 jurisdictions, including international and regional courts, tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies, or other adjudicatory bodies across the world. 
    • This is a steady increase from 884 cases in 2017 to 1,550 cases in 2020.
    • According to the report, “children and youth, women’s groups, local communities, and indigenous Peoples, among others, are taking a prominent role in bringing these cases and driving climate change governance reform in more and more countries around the world.”
  • In August 2023, young plaintiffs of Montana, US, won a case against their state government in which the latter was found guilty of violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. 
    • The court said Montana’s neglect of climate change while approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional.
  • Courts in Australia, Brazil, Peru and South Korea are considering human rights-based climate cases. 
  • Similar cases have also been filed in India
    • Recently, the Supreme Court of India expanded the scope of Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty), saying people have a “right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change”.
    • In 2017, a 9-year-old girl from Uttarakhand approached the National Green Tribunal of India, arguing that the Public Trust Doctrine, India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, and India’s existing environmental laws and climate-related policies oblige greater action to mitigate climate change. Her petition, however, was later rejected.

The European Court of Human Rights:

  • The European Court is a judicial body established in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. 
  • The Court is based in Strasbourg, France, and is a permanent full-time body.
  • It rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • The judgements of the court are binding on the countries concerned and have led governments to alter their legislation and administrative practice in a wide range of areas. 
  • The Court's case law makes the Convention a powerful living instrument for meeting new challenges and consolidating the rule of law and democracy in Europe.

European Convention on Human Rights:

  • The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, better known as the European Convention on Human Rights, was opened for signature in Rome on 4 November 1950 and came into force on 3 September 1953.
  • It was the first instrument to give effect to certain rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and make them binding.
  • The statute established three institutions that were responsible for enforcing the obligations undertaken by the Contracting States:
    • The European Commission of Human Rights.
    • The European Court of Human Rights.
    • The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.


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