Verdict saying Switzerland violated rights by failing on climate action could ripple across Europe

Lawyers and members of the public attend the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday in Strasbourg, France. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

STRASBOURG, France — Europe’s highest human rights court ruled Tuesday that countries must better protect their people from the consequences of climate change, siding with a group of older Swiss women against their government in a landmark ruling that could have implications across the continent.

The European Court of Human Rights rejected two other, similar cases on procedural grounds — a high-profile one brought by Portuguese young people and another by a French mayor that sought to force governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


But the Swiss case, nonetheless, sets a legal precedent in the Council of Europe’s 46 member states against which future lawsuits will be judged.

“This is a turning point,” said Corina Heri, an expert in climate change litigation at the University of Zurich.

Although activists have had success with lawsuits in domestic proceedings, this was the first time an international court ruled on climate change — and the first decision confirming that countries have an obligation to protect people from its effects, according to Heri.

She said it would open the door to more legal challenges in the countries that are members of the Council of Europe, which includes the 27 EU nations as well as many others from Britain to Turkey.

The Swiss ruling softened the blow for those who lost Tuesday.

“The most important thing is that the court has said in the Swiss women’s case that governments must cut their emissions more to protect human rights,” said 19-year-od Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese plaintiffs. “Their win is a win for us, too, and a win for everyone!”

The court — which is unrelated to the European Union — ruled that Switzerland “had failed to comply with its duties” to combat climate change and meet emissions targets.

That, the court said, was a violation of the women’s rights, noting that the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees people “effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life.”

A group called Senior Women for Climate Protection, whose average age is 74, had argued that they were particularly affected because older women are most vulnerable to the extreme heat that is becoming more frequent.

“The court recognized our fundamental right to a healthy climate and to have our country do what it failed to do until now: that is to say taking ambitious measures to protect our health and protect the future of all,” said Anne Mahrer, a member of the group.

Switzerland said it would study the decision to see what steps would be needed. “We have to, in good faith, implement and execute the judgment,” Alain Chablais, who represented the country at last year’s hearings, told The Associated Press.

Judge Siofra O’Leary, the court’s president, stressed that it would be up to governments to decide how to approach climate change obligations — and experts noted that was a limit of the ruling.

“The European Court of Human Rights stopped short of ordering the Swiss government to take any specific action, underscoring that relief from the Swiss government ‘necessarily depends on democratic decision-making’ to enact the laws necessary to impose such a remedy,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in environmental and natural resources law.

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