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Anne Mahrer, Co-President of KlimaSeniorinnen, at a demonstration outside the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 29 March 2023 Alamy Stock Photo
Win for Swiss Women

European court rules Swiss government violated human rights by failing on climate action

The Irish government tried to intervene in the proceedings but the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the Swiss women who took the case.

A TOP EUROPEAN Court has ruled that the Swiss government committed a human rights violation by failing to take sufficient action to counter climate change in a landmark ruling that may also influence other countries, including Ireland.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a highly anticipated ruling today in a case taken by older Swiss women concerned about the consequences of global warming on their living conditions and health.

The court of 17 judges, which is presided over by Irish judge Síofra O’Leary, ruled that the Swiss government violated an article of the European Convention of Human Rights by not taking sufficient action to reduce emissions or making a clear plan for future reductions.

During the proceedings, the Irish government made an intervention and sent a legal team to Strasbourg to try to argue that the Convention does not guarantee the right to a healthy environment – but the Court ultimately found the Convention entitles people to be protected by State authorities against adverse effects of climate change on their lives and health.

The governments of Ireland, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Romania, and Slovakia intervened in the written proceedings as third parties, but just the Irish government – along with the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions – was allowed to make an oral argument.

The case sets a precedent for other European governments’ responsibilities on climate action.

Irish legal charity Community Law and Mediation’s Centre for Environmental Justice called the ruling “an historic victory for climate justice” and said it “demonstrates the power of people holding governments accountable for their lack of climate action and will have broader implications for climate litigation globally”.

The association of Swiss women who took the case - KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz – argued that the Swiss authorities failed to mitigate the effects of climate change which, they said, adversely affect their lives, living conditions and health.

In its ruling, the court found that Article 8 of the Convention encompasses a right for individuals to effective protection by the State authorities from serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, wellbeing and quality of life.

It ruled that there were “critical gaps” in Switzerland on implementing relevant national regulatory frameworks, including a failure to set a clear limit on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Switzerland had previously failed to meet its past emission reduction targets and Swiss authorities had not acted in time and in an appropriate way to devise and implement legislation and measures in line with its obligations relevant to climate change under Article 8 of the Convention, the court noted.

The court also ruled on two more cases related to climate action.

Six young Portuguese people aged 12 to 24 had taken a case against 32 states on climate action failure and a former French mayor argued that French government inaction put his town at risk of being submerged by the North Sea. 

Both of those cases failed – the first because the court said that the applicants had not yet exhausted all other legal options available to them, and the second because the applicant had since moved from France to Belgium.

“While the rulings may not have delivered the outcomes we hoped for in the Duarte Agostinho case involving six Portuguese youth v 32 European countries and Damien Carême v France, together the cases highlighted the urgent need for accountability and action in addressing the profound human rights implications of climate inaction,” the Centre for Environmental Justice said.

“States are responsible for protecting us from the climate crisis and they can and should be held accountable if they fail to protect human rights. These cases are part of a global wave of climate litigation as a growing number of communities take action to secure their human rights and hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable.

“Ireland and all EU states have a legal and ethical duty to adhere to their obligations on climate change, to protect children, citizens and communities from the most dangerous impacts of the climate crisis and to prevent the need for more abrupt and forceful action later.”