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Top European Court hands Swiss women wide-ranging climate victory

Swiss climate women celebrate their victory in Strasbourg

Members of the Swiss Climate Seniors (KlimaSeniorinnen) celebrate their victory in the European Court of Human Rights

April 2024: A determined group of senior Swiss women won a great victory against its own country in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Switzerland must do more to protect the climate, according to the judges in the case brought by the climate seniors. Europe's top human rights court ruled that the Swiss government had violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to do enough to combat climate change. The decision is likely to be used as a precedent in future climate lawsuits.


The Court’s unprecedented ruling, in favour of the more than 2,500 Swiss women (KlimaSeniorinnen), who brought the case, is expected to resonate in court decisions across Europe and beyond and to embolden more communities to bring climate cases against governments.. This is the first time that the ECHR has condemned a state for failing to take action against climate change, linking the protection of human rights to compliance with environmental obligations.


The ECHR pointed out that there was sufficient evidence that climate change posed a "serious present and future threat" to the exercise of ECHR rights. The states are aware of this and are also in a position to take measures to effectively counter this threat. If it is possible to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the risks are likely to be lower. The legal obligations of states under the ECHR are limited to people living at the moment. Nevertheless, future generations will be particularly affected by climate change.


In her ruling, ECHR President Siofra O'Leary said the Swiss government had failed to comply with its targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and had failed to set a national carbon budget. "It is clear that future generations are likely to bear an increasingly severe burden of the consequences of present failures and omissions to combat climate change," O'Leary said.


One of KlimaSeniorinnen's leaders, Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, said she was struggling to grasp the full extent of the decision. “Today is a day of joy, relief and very strong emotions,” said Norma Bargetzi-Horisberger, another member of the group.


The legal complaint by the KlimaSeniorinnen stated that the Swiss authorities have failed to act on climate change. “Climate change hurts people’s living conditions and health.” The women argued that Switzerland has not fulfilled its obligations under Articles 2 and 8 of the Convention on Human Rights (4). Article 2 refers to people’s ‘Right to Life’, while Article 8 deals with protecting people’s privacy and family life. The climate seniors also maintain that they were declined access to Swiss courts.


The Swiss climate activists used women's vulnerability to back up their lawsuit. The case against Switzerland before the European Court of Human Rights is the first climate lawsuit at the European level. The ruling in favour of the climate seniors could be used as a precedent in future legal challenges against the climate policies of all or any of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe.


The ECHR also ruled on two other cases. It ruled that the case brought by a group of young Portuguese against Portugal and 32 other countries, including Germany and Switzerland, was inadmissible. It drew the same conclusion as the legal action brought by Damien Carême, the former mayor of the French municipality of Grande-Synthe, who asked to condemn the French government for climate inaction.


In a statement, the environmental campaigning network Greenpeace commented: “This is a huge victory not only for all the older women but for access to justice across Europe. Switzerland must now adjust its current climate targets based on science. The Court found that Switzerland had failed to comply with its duties under the Convention concerning climate change. The Swiss authorities had not acted in time and in an appropriate way to implement measures to mitigate the effects of climate change in this case. Furthermore, Switzerland has not achieved its inadequate targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For the first time, a transnational court specialising in human rights is directly upholding a human rights-based right to climate protection.


This ruling could have far-reaching implications. It sets a precedent for all 46 states of the Council of Europe. Across Europe, all Council of Europe states could be asked by their citizens to review and, if necessary, strengthen their climate policy based on the principles developed by the ECHR to safeguard human rights. This would benefit everyone – young and old. This ruling sends out a global signal.


"This judgement is not just a victory for the Senior Women for Climate Protection. Our victory is a victory for all generations. Especially for the Portuguese youth, whose generation will be beneficiaries of a long-term improved climate. The presence of the young people in the courtroom showed the judges the face of human rights for the future," says Rosemarie Wydler-Wälti, Co-President of the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection.


"This ruling is a landmark in the struggle for a liveable climate for everyone. And the ruling is a satisfaction. We have been fighting for climate justice for nine years with the support of Greenpeace. After the Swiss courts refused to hear us, the ECHR has now confirmed that climate protection is a human right," says Anne Mahrer, Co-President of the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection.


"I am overwhelmed and extremely proud that after 9 years of intensive work, the senior women have finally got their due. This is an indescribable moment," says Cordelia Bähr, lead lawyer for the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection. "The significance of this decision cannot be overestimated. It will be of great importance for further climate lawsuits against states and companies worldwide and increase their chances of success. The judgment shows citizens, judges and governments across Europe what is needed in terms of climate protection to respect human rights."

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1) KlimaSeniorinnen was founded in August 2016 by some 150 senior women. The group has now more than 2,300 members in addition to some 1,000 supporters. Because older women are most affected by the more frequent and more intense heatwaves, membership, on the advice of their lawyers, is restricted to older women. The average age of members is currently 73.

2) The Paris Climate Accords, is an international treaty on climate change. Adopted in 2015, the agreement covers climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance.

3) The European Court of Human Rights (EctHR) was set up in 1959. It hears applications alleging that a contracting state has breached one or more of the human rights provisions concerning civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

4) The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe. All 47 Member States of the Council, including the UK, have signed the Convention. Its full title is the ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’.

5) The Council of Europe was founded after the Second World War to protect human rights and the rule of law, and to promote democracy. The Member States’ first task was to draw up a treaty to secure basic rights for anyone within their borders, including their own citizens and people of other nationalities.

6) Damien Carême was shortlisted for the 2016 World Mayor Prize 


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