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Why is the ECHR ruling on climate and human rights historic?

climate and human rights


Climate and human rights are to be protected

( – Switzerland has violated the human rights of its citizens because it has not done enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This was established by the European Court of Human Rights after a year of work in the judgment, issued on 9 April, on the climate dispute advanced in 2016 by KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, a group of 2 thousand Swiss elderly people with an average age of 73 years. The ruling has a historical scope and rewrites the relationship between climate and human rights: the ECHR’s decision is legally binding, will influence other courts and will give more chances for ongoing and future climate disputes. This is the first time that an international court has ruled that the climate crisis damages human rights.

Climate disputes rejected by the ECHR

At Tuesday’s session, the ECHR ruled on three different climate disputes. Two were rejected.

One was introduced in 2019 by Damien Carême, former mayor of the municipality of Grande-Synthe and now MEP. The politician had approached the EU Court of Human Rights trying to demonstrate a link between France’s refusal to adopt more ambitious climate policies and the damage to housing caused by climate change, in particular by rising sea levels. The ECHR has wronged him because he no longer lives in France and has not brought enough convincing evidence.

The other dispute that went wrong involved a group of young Portuguese people who went to the Court for the same reasons – human rights violations caused by weak climate policies – but demanded a condemnation both for Portugal and a further 32 European countries. The ECHR ruled that the accusation against the other countries was inadmissible and did not proceed in the Lisbon case because the Portuguese young people had not exhausted all the legal remedies allowed by national law before turning to the Court.

The three climate disputes were based on different aspects, but they demanded the same thing: that states be required to protect their citizens from the effects of the climate crisis. The victory of the Swiss case, therefore, establishes a precedent that is valid for all the members of the Council of Europe (46 countries are signatories to the ECHR) and can be used in other cases. On the other hand, the ECHR has put in pause 6 other similar disputes pending yesterday’s judgment. “Their victory is also our victory, and a victory for all,” said Sofia Oliveira, a 19-year-old girl who is part of the Portuguese youth group.

What does the ECHR ruling say about the relationship between climate and human rights?

To understand why the ruling on the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz case is a victory of global scope, the Court’s decision must be read closely. Everything revolves around the interpretation given to Article 8 of the ECHR, which reads as follows:

1. Every person has the right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and correspondence. 2. There shall be no interference by a public authority in the exercise of that right unless such interference is provided for by law and constitutes a measure that, in a democratic society, is necessary for national security and public security, the economic well-being of the country, the defense of order and the prevention of crime, the protection of health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

What is the scope of this article? The ECHR, by a very large majority (16 votes to 1), has established that it also concerns the link between climate and human rights, an aspect not made explicit in the text and hitherto never pointed out by case law. According to the Court, art.8 “includes the right to effective protection by state authorities from the serious negative effects of climate change on life, health, well-being and quality of life”.

Switzerland has been condemned for “gaps” in national legislation. The ECHR stresses that Swiss legislation has not done enough to “quantify, through a carbon balance or otherwise, national limitations on greenhouse gas emissions”. Perhaps even more important is another passage of the judgment, where the Court states that the Swiss country is to be condemned also because “it failed to achieve its previous targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions”. There is therefore a retroactive application based on the idea that the shortcomings of the past have effects on climate and human rights in the present. The government in Bern “did not act in time and adequately to devise, develop and implement relevant legislation and measures in this case”, concludes the ECHR.

read also At the start of the biggest climate process in history

We still can’t believe it. We keep asking our lawyers, ‘Is it true?’ And they tell us it’s the best you could get. The biggest victory possible”, commented one of the leaders of the Swiss women’s group, Rosmarie Wydler-Waelti. “We expect this ruling to affect climate action and climate disputes across Europe and beyond. The ruling strengthens the vital role of courts – both international and national – in binding governments to their legal obligations to protect human rights from environmental damage,” stresses Oie Chowdhury, a lawyer for the CIEL NGO.

Read the ECHR ruling here.

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