‘Seniors for climate’ win landmark ECHR case

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A group of over 2,500 retired women have won a climate case in the European Court of Human Rights against the Swiss government. The judgment making protection from climate change a human right is final and binding for all Council of Europe member states, including the UK. Some say it will even influence governments and courts beyond Europe.

The pensioners in the case of Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and others v Switzerland took the Swiss government to the ECHR demanding that the federal authorities “correct the course of Swiss climate policy because the current climate targets and measures are not sufficient to limit global warming to a safe level”.  

In the judgment delivered on Tuesday, 16 of the 17 ECHR judges agreed that the pensioners’ human rights have been violated. The court found that the European Convention on Human Rights “encompasses a right to effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, wellbeing and quality of life”.  

The court found that Switzerland had failed to comply with its duties under the convention concerning climate change. ECHR also said article 6 has been breached – the right to a fair and public hearing – because the women’s access to court had been restricted in Switzerland. 

As a signatory, Switzerland will need to comply with the ruling. It also has to pay €80,000 plus interest to the claimant association. 

Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, who co-chairs KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, told mallowstreet she was very happy that the court so clearly agreed on the key points, namely that article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated. Article 8 encompasses the right to respect for private and family life.   

“In 2020, we had to go to the ECHR because everyone had rejected our complaint [in Switzerland]. Nobody really took us seriously and considered our needs properly,” she said.  

Climate change has an effect on the full enjoyment of human rights of older persons, said the UN special rapporteurs on toxics and human rights and on human rights and the environment, as well as an independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons. They added that older women were more vulnerable to climate impacts, having a greater likelihood of chronic diseases and air pollution harms, and higher rates of mortality from extreme heat events. 

Switzerland can either implement the ruling or leave the Council of Europe, Wydler-Wälti noted, but it is not allowed to get out of taking action if it remains.   
“Of course everyone [in Switzerland] will try to launch popular referendums etc and try to torpedo it, but you can’t just drop it,” she said. “If nothing changes in Switzerland, then the ECHR could threaten Switzerland and say, ‘If you don't comply, you must leave’.” 

On Wednesday, the ECHR also published its verdicts on two other climate cases, Duarte Agostinho and others v Portugal and 32 other states, and Carême v France. The ECHR declared both of these applications inadmissible.  

Wydler-Wälti said: “The Portuguese teenagers have sadly lost, but we said our win is for them as well, and the court emphasised this - that it has effect for all signatory states.” 

She added that there are a growing number of such cases: "Many are just looking to get going, there will be loads. We actually wanted to inspire that, to create a snowball effect, so the climate movement is reactivated at every level."

A spokesperson for the Swiss government said the Federal Office of Justice, which represents Switzerland at the ECHR, takes note of the judgment.  

“The comprehensive judgment will be analysed with the authorities concerned, and the measures which Switzerland has to take for the future will be examined,” the spokesperson said.  

In 2021, Swiss voters rejected the government’s proposed CO2 law, intended to help the country achieve its net zero 2050 target. Swiss parliament last month passed a revised version of the law for the period 2025-2030. In June, voters will decide about a separate law on energy security and renewable energy.

UK’s judge fears ruling is counterproductive 

Although the court agreed that the women’s human rights were not being upheld in relation to climate change, the judges were not entirely unanimous. The UK's judge to the ECHR, Tim Eicke KC, argued the ruling will distract governments from their ongoing climate efforts. 

“While I understand and share the very real sense of and need for urgency in relation to the fight against anthropogenic climate change, I fear that in this judgment the majority has gone beyond what it is legitimate and permissible for this court to do and, unfortunately, in doing so, may well have achieved exactly the opposite effect to what was intended,” he wrote.  

Several European governments intervened in the case making various arguments about the court’s reach and the processes to attain climate objectives, including Austria, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia. 

Influence beyond Europe’s borders  

Campaign group ClientEarth, which had submitted documents to the court for the case, welcomed the ruling.   

“This result from one of the world’s highest courts sends a clear message: governments must take real action on emissions to safeguard the human rights of their citizens,” said fundamental rights lead Vesselina Newman.

Signatory states now have a legal duty to ensure their climate action is sufficient to protect human rights. Judges across Europe will have to apply these new principles to climate cases before them, but the influence of the case goes beyond Europe’s borders, said Newman.   

“Human-rights based climate cases are before courts in Brazil, Peru, Australia and South Korea, with these rulings potentially having an impact for those crucial proceedings as well,” she said.

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