European Court Rules Switzerland Violated Rights Through Inaction on Climate Change

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
April 9, 2024Europe
European Court Rules Switzerland Violated Rights Through Inaction on Climate Change
The inside of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Feb. 7, 2019. (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the government of Switzerland violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to take sufficient action to protect them against climate risks.

The Tuesday ruling from the court in Strasbourg, France, comes as a victory for Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz.

Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, whose name translates in English as “Senior Women for Climate Protection,” had argued that the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) contains language specifically obligating their government to protect them from the harmful effects of climate change.

Article 8 of the ECHR generally describes an individual right to respect for that individual’s private and family life, as well as his home and personal correspondence.

The applicants for the human rights ruling argued the privacy and personal life rights described in Article 8 of the ECHR entail a right not to have one’s personal life impacted by climate change and create an obligation for convention member nations to ensure that right.

The Swiss government had insisted it had recognized the potential harms of climate change and had taken steps to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but questioned the legal grounds for bringing such a case. The Swiss government argued that the negative health effects the applicants might suffer from rising temperatures were too vague to be specifically attributed to any failure of action by the Swiss government.

“GHG emissions were caused by the community of States and different States emitted different GHG emissions. Given Switzerland’s current low GHG intensity, the omissions imputed to Switzerland were not of such a nature as to cause, on their own, the suffering claimed by the applicants and to have serious consequences for their lives and private and family life,” the Swiss government argued, according to a summary of their arguments provided in the Tuesday ruling.

The European Court of Human Rights, established to adjudicate cases involving the ECHR, ultimately sided with the applicants in concluding Article 8 of that 1950 convention “encompasses a right to effective protection by the State authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, well-being and quality of life.”

The court determined Switzerland failed to live up to these apparent obligations to protect its citizens from climate change because it had not implemented a sufficient domestic framework for regulating GHG emissions.

“While recognising that national authorities enjoy wide discretion in relation to implementation of legislation and measures, the Court held, on the basis of the material before it, that the Swiss authorities had not acted in time and in an appropriate way to devise, develop and implement relevant legislation and measures in this case,” a summary of the Tuesday ruling states.

The European Court of Human Rights further ruled that the Swiss court system had violated Article 6 of the ECHR by declining to hear the applicants’ climate arguments themselves. Article 6 of the ECHR obligates member nations to ensure their citizens have the right to a fair trial.

“The Court held that the Swiss courts had not provided convincing reasons as to why they had considered it unnecessary to examine the merits of the applicant association’s complaints. They had failed to take into consideration the compelling scientific evidence concerning climate change and had not taken the complaints seriously,” the summary of the ruling states.

The verdict, which cannot be appealed, could compel the Swiss government to take greater action to reduce GHG emissions.

The ruling will impact the 46 nations that are members of the Council of Europe and its ECHR, obligating those member nations to ensure they establish policies to address climate change.

“This is a turning point,” climate activist and litigant Corina Heri said of the Tuesday ruling. She said the ruling paves the way for additional legal challenges for the various Council of Europe members.

Judge Siofra O’Leary, the court’s president, stressed that various member nations of the Council of Europe would still have to decide how to address their newfound obligations to protect people from climate change.

“The European Court of Human Rights stopped short of ordering the Swiss government to take any specific action, underscoring that relief from the Swiss government ‘necessarily depends on democratic decision-making’ to enact the laws necessary to impose such a remedy,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in environmental and natural resources law.

The Swiss Federal Office of Justice has described the European Court of Human Rights Tuesday ruling as final and said it must be implemented.

“Together with the authorities concerned, we will now analyse the extensive judgment and review what measures Switzerland will take in the future,” the Swiss government office said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this article.

ntd newsletter icon
Sign up for NTD Daily
What you need to know, summarized in one email.
Stay informed with accurate news you can trust.
By registering for the newsletter, you agree to the Privacy Policy.