Historic court ruling says Switzerland’s climate inaction violated human rights

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WNews – In a decision that will set a precedent for future climate lawsuits, Europe’s top human rights court ruled on Tuesday that Switzerland violated the rights of its citizens by failing to combat climate change.

More than 2,000 Swiss women brought the case, and the court’s ruling is expected to resonate throughout Europe and beyond, and to embolden more communities to challenge governments on climate change.

However, the court (ECtHR) rejected two more climate-related lawsuits on procedural grounds, demonstrating the complexity of climate litigation. In one case, a group of six Portuguese young people sued 32 European governments, and in another, a former mayor of a coastal French town sued 32 European governments.

Climate Seniorinnen, Swiss women over 64 who are well versed in climate change, say their government has been inaction on climate change, which has put them at risk of dying during #heatwaves. They argue that their age and gender make them particularly vulnerable to such climate change impacts.

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The Court President Siofra O’Leary, in her ruling earlier this month, said that the Swiss government had failed to comply with its own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and had failed to establish a national carbon budget as a result.

As a result of current failures and omissions to combat climate change, future generations are likely to bear an increasing burden, O’Leary said.

Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, a leader of KlimaSeniorinnen, said she was struggling to comprehend the decision.

“We keep asking our lawyers, ‘Is that right?’. And they tell us ‘it’s the most you could have had. The biggest victory possible’.”

According to the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, which represented the Swiss government at the court, the ruling was noted.

“Together with the authorities concerned, we will now analyze the extensive judgment and review what measures Switzerland will take in the future,” it said in a statement.

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A rise in climate litigation

Climate lawsuits filed by citizens against governments that rely on human rights law are among the increasing number before the 17-judge panel in Strasbourg, France.

A constitutional challenge filed by 15 youth in Canada was allowed to proceed by the Federal Court of Appeal in December, overturning a lower court decision that dismissed it. A similar youth-led challenge was heard by Ontario’s Court of Appeal in January. Both lawsuits claim climate change inaction violates plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

#Montana’s governor violated constitutional rights last summer by not considering climate change when approving fossil fuel development, setting a precedent in the country. A federal lawsuit is about to start in Oregon.

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Switzerland’s verdict, which cannot be appealed, will have international ripple effects, including setting a binding legal precedent for all 46 countries that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights.

In other words, Switzerland has a legal obligation to reduce emissions more aggressively.

In the event that Switzerland does not update its policies, further litigation at the national level may follow, and financial penalties may be imposed by courts, said Lucy Maxwell, co-director of the non-profit Climate Litigation Network.

The Swiss government has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. Bern had proposed stronger measures to achieve the goal, but voters rebuffed them as too burdensome in a referendum held in 2021.

It is also possible that the verdict could have a significant impact on future decisions made by the Strasbourg court, which had put six other climate cases on hold pending the verdict of Tuesday.

There have been a number of lawsuits filed against the Norwegian government alleging that it violated human rights by granting new oil and gas exploration licenses beyond 2035 in the Barents Sea, including one against the Norwegian government.

“(It) sets a crucial legally binding precedent serving as a blueprint for how to successfully sue your own government over climate failures,” Ruth Delbaere, legal campaigns director at global civic movement Avaaz, said of the Swiss case’s outcome.

In recent months, courts in Australia, Brazil, Peru and South Korea have examined human rights based climate disputes. Earlier this month, the Indian supreme court ruled that citizens have a right to be free from the harmful effects of climate change.

This was the result of a court case in which the Portuguese youngsters brought an action against a state for its greenhouse gas emissions. The court found that while the emissions of a state could adversely impact people living outside its borders, that was not a sufficient reason to prosecute a case in more than one state.

Furthermore, the ECtHR also noted that the young people had not exhausted all legal avenues within Portugal’s national courts before approaching the ECtHR with their complaints.

“I really hoped that we would win against all the countries,” Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese teens, said in a statement.

“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.”

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