Swiss women launch landmark lawsuit in Europe claiming weak climate action breaches their human rights

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A group of older Swiss women are taking their government to Europe’s top human rights court, claiming its failure to act on the climate crisis is violating their human rights.

The case, which begins in Strasbourg on Wednesday, is the first climate lawsuit to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights. The tribunal serves as the court of last resort for people and groups that have exhausted all legal options in their home countries. While any ruling will only apply to Switzerland, if successful, the case could open the gates for numerous similar lawsuits to be launched in the future.

The lawsuit was brought by the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection, a group of more than 2,000 Swiss women, all of whom are over 64 years old, and a separate group of four women who are between 80 and 90 years old. One of the four women has died since the lawsuit was launched, according to the court.

The women are claiming that their health and quality of life are suffering because of heatwaves, which are becoming harsher and more frequent because of the climate crisis.

The women first filed the lawsuit against the Swiss government and several other Swiss authorities in 2016. They say the government bodies are violating their human rights by failing to ensure Switzerland is on track to comply with the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

They asked the Swiss government to introduce additional measures to slash levels of planet-heating pollution and to enshrine stronger climate protection policies in law.

Switzerland has committed to cut its planet-heating emissions by at least 50% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and to become net-zero by 2050, meaning it would remove from the atmosphere at least as much planet-warming pollution as it emits.

However, in a blow to the policy, Swiss voters narrowly rejected a plan to introduce specific measures to reach these goals in a 2021 referendum. A watered-down version of the law is currently making its way through the Swiss legal system.

According to Climate Action Tracker, a group of scientists that evaluate national climate plans, the Swiss goals are not consistent with the country’s obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Climate litigation experts and legal scholars say the case is unprecedented and could pave the way for future lawsuits.

“This is the first time ever that the [European Court of Human Rights] is engaging with a climate case. It has issued no findings on this before,” Corina Heri, a researcher at the Institute of Law of the University of Zurich, told CNN.

“What the court decides on these questions will be defining for its other climate cases, and will send strong signals to courts all across the Council of Europe, and around the world,” Heri said.

The ruling could set the course for future case law, said Joana Setzer, an assistant professorial research fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment said.

“If successful, the court might order Switzerland to adopt legislative and administrative measure to prevent a global temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, including concrete emission reduction targets,” she said.

The Swiss Senior Women for Climate pose in front of the European Courth of Human Rights building in Strasbourg, France, 27 October 2020.

Climate lawsuits are becoming an increasingly popular and powerful tool for climate change activists. A database of cases compiled by the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and the Sabin Center at Columbia Law School, counts more than 2,000 cases around the world, around a quarter of which were filed between 2020 and 2022.

“These types of cases are popping up more and more, and each case helps explore what’s legally possible. In this one, ideally, the court would establish that human rights are at risk from climate change-related harms, and that courts are capable of engaging with scientific evidence and meaningfully addressing these harms,” Heri said.

The case will likely affect climate litigation across Europe. Courts in the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and elsewhere have previously ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights requires governments to implement mitigation measures.

“So this is a chance to either confirm those domestic approaches … or to close the door for this type of litigation,” Heri said.

“Even if the Court decides that there was no violation – it is likely that similar cases will follow, particularly in domestic courts. There are 300 climate litigation cases that have already been filed in Europe, either before national or regional courts,” Setzer added.

The Swiss courts have repeatedly dismissed the Swiss Senior Women for Climate case. The country’s Federal Administrative Court rejected the case in 2018, saying that the women couldn’t be identified as victims, because they were not exclusively affected by climate change. All humans, animals and plants, the court argued, were affected in some way.

An appeal was then rejected by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which argued that the climate crisis was not affecting the women’s right to life and health to a sufficient extent. The Supreme Court said the remedy the women were seeking must be achieved through political rather than legal means.

Following the dismissals, the group launched the case with the European Court of Human Rights in 2020. The fact that the court decided to hear the case was already a victory. The majority of applications to the court are not heard because of a high bar on admissibility. In a further indication of its importance, the case will be heard by the court’s Grand Chamber, which consists of 17 judges and which is convened only in exceptional cases.

“Ten years ago, this kind of case was unimaginable,” Heri said. “The fact that they’re being heard means they passed a preliminary admissibility check, and the fact that they’re being heard directly at the Grand Chamber means they raise serious legal questions.”

“I am convinced that the courts must and will play a decisive role in overcoming the climate crisis,” Cordelia Bähr, one of the lawyers representing the elderly women, said in a news release.

The Swiss government has called for the European Court of Human Rights to dismiss the case, arguing the lawsuit is “manifestly ill-founded.”

The court said several countries have made interventions in support of the Swiss government. Documents published by the Swiss Senior Women for Climate show that Austria, Ireland and Latvia were among the countries intervening in support of Switzerland.

A number of global human rights organizations, environmental groups and climate law experts have submitted formal interventions in support of the case.

The case is one of three lawsuits that are currently pending at the European Court of Human Rights. One case is brought by a French man who claims France’s failure to sufficiently cut emissions is endangering his life and his home. The third one was filed by six young people in Portugal, who claim that 33 European countries are putting their health and lives at risk by not acting on climate.

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