STRASBOURG: Europe’s top rights court on Tuesday said Switzerland was not doing enough to tackle climate change in a historic decision that could force governments to adopt more ambitious climate policies.

The European Court of Human Rights, part of the 46-member Council of Europe, however, threw out two other climate cases against European states on procedural grounds.

Hopes had been high for a legal turning point ahead of the rulings in the three cases, treated as a priority by the 17 judges of the court’s Grand Chamber.

In the first case, the court found that the Swiss state had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”, according to the ruling.

The Swiss association of Elders for Climate Protection — 2,500 women aged 73 on average — had complained about the “failings of the Swiss authorities” in terms of climate protection that could “seriously harm” their health.

The court found “there were some critical lacunae” in relevant Swiss regulations, including a failure to quantify limits on national greenhouse gas emissions. The court ordered the Swiss state to pay the association 80,000 euros (almost $87,000) within three months. The lawyer of the Swiss association, Cordelia Bahr, said the court had “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. Climate activist Greta Thunberg said it was “only the beginning of climate litigation”.

“All over the world more and more people are taking their government to court, holding them responsible for their actions,” she said inside the court after attending the rulings.

‘Historic’

Joie Chowdhury, a lawyer from the Centre for International Environmental Law, said the ruling was “historic”. “We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond,” she said.

It “leaves no doubt: the climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and states have human rights obligations to act urgently and effectively… to prevent further devastation and harm to people and the environment,” she said.

Gerry Liston, of the NGO Global Legal Action Network, said before the rulings that a victory in any of the three cases could constitute “the most significant legal development on climate change for Europe since the signing of the Paris 2015 Agreement”.

The Paris Agreement set targets for governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Swiss government said it would examine measures it should take following the ruling. Alain Chablais, the lawyer who represented Switzerland in court, warned it might take “some time”.

The hard-right Swiss People’s Party, the country’s largest political party but which has only two of seven seats in the government, called the decision a “scandal” and an “interference” in domestic policy, and called for Switzerland to withdraw from the Council of Europe.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2024

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