Swiss Climate Negligence and Human Rights Violations

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Today, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision holding that Switzerland violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to adequately protect them from climate change. Specifically, the Court held that states have the “duty [] to adopt, and to effectively apply in practice, regulations and measures capable of mitigating the existing and potentially irreversible[] future effects of climate change,” and that states “need to put in place the necessary regulations and measures aimed at preventing an increase in GHG concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere and a rise in global average temperature beyond levels capable of producing serious and irreversible adverse effects on human rights.” 

This ruling is significant for a number of reasons, especially the fact that an influential court has now ruled that a failure to take adequate steps to combat climate change constitutes a human rights violation. However, there are also significant limitations. In particular, the European Court of Human Rights recognized that governments need a degree of flexibility in achieving the goal of combatting climate change, and refused to prescribe particular policies, saying that “States should be accorded a wide margin of appreciation” with respect to “their choice of means, including operational choices and policies adopted in order to meet internationally anchored targets and commitments in the light of priorities and resources.”

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It is also worthwhile to note that the European Court of Human Rights disposed of two similar lawsuits on procedural grounds–e.g., a lack of standing–even while issuing this decision. This suggests that similar lawsuits may also encounter significant procedural hurdles before receiving the proverbial day in court. 

Perhaps most importantly, this ruling will likely encourage similar lawsuits that seek to compel governments to take action with respect to climate change. In the United States, these often take the form of “constitutional litigation,” like the case decided by the Montana Supreme Court last year. It should be expected that more such lawsuits will be filed.

Switzerland violated its citizens’ human rights by failing to protect them from climate change’s catastrophic effects, Europe’s top human rights court said Tuesday in a ruling expected to reverberate across future lawsuits. The judgment — dubbed KlimaSeniorinnen after the senior women taking the country to court — came after a trial that saw elderly Swiss women allege Bern wasn’t cutting planet-warming emissions fast enough to avoid climate disasters such as heat waves that disproportionately harm older people. The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights is the judicial arm of the Council of Europe, an international human rights organization separate from the European Union. Its rulings are binding on the Council’s 46 members, which includes all 27 EU countries.

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