Weak government climate policies ‘violate fundamental human rights’, European Court of Human Rights rules

Swiss authorities ‘did not act in time to come up with a good enough strategy to cut emissions’

In a landmark decision the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Swiss government violated its citizens’ human rights by not doing enough to stop climate change, an outcome likely to have significant implications for other governments including Ireland’s.

The ruling on Tuesday is one of three major climate cases fast-tracked by the court, and is the first by an international court, setting a significant precedent that is likely to boost cases being brought around the world, including actions being pursued by young climate activists.

The court’s top bench sitting in Strasbourg ruled Switzerland had violated the rights of a group of older Swiss women to family life, but threw out a case brought by young activists from Portugal against 32 European countries including Ireland and a case brought by a French politician.

The Portuguese case was led by Irish lawyers from the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) based in Galway.


“Today’s ruling against Switzerland sets a historic precedent that applies to all European countries,” said its senior lawyer Gerry Liston. “It means that all European countries must urgently revise their targets so that they, are science-based and aligned to 1.5 degrees. This is a massive win for all generations.”

“It feels like a mixed result because two of the cases were inadmissible,” said Corina Heri, a law researcher at the University of Zürich who worked on the Portuguese case. “But actually it’s a huge success ... These cases drew on each other, and they should be understood that way.”

The court “has actually said that by not meeting its targets on climate, Switzerland has violated the rights of the European human rights convention ... this is huge,” said Annalisa Savaresi, professor of environmental law at University of Stirling in Scotland. National courts would be closely watching the ruling, she said.

With many countries failing to meet their climate targets, the decision could influence similar cases before national courts, Dr Savaresi said, and would put a “spring in the steps” of such applicants.

The Swiss verdict opens up all 46 members of the Council of Europe to similar cases in national courts that they are likely to lose.

Delivering the judgment, court president Judge Síofra O’Leary stressed it would be up to governments to decide how to approach climate change obligations.

Joie Chowdhury, an attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law campaign group, said the judgment left no doubt that the climate crisis was a human rights crisis. “We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond,” she said.

The facts of the three cases varied widely, but they all hinged on the question of whether government inaction on climate change violated fundamental human rights. Some of the governments – including Ireland – argued that the cases should not be admitted, and that climate policy should be the subject of national governments rather than international courts.

The plaintiffs attending the hearing, some as young as 12, celebrated the verdicts. Climate activist Greta Thunberg joined a gathering outside the court before the hearing to encourage faster action. “These rulings are a call to action. They underscore the importance of taking our national governments to court,” the 21-year-old Swede said.

The KlimaSeniorinnen, a group of 2,400 older Swiss women, told the court that several of their rights were being violated. Because older women are more likely to die in heatwaves – which have become hotter and more common because of fossil fuels – they argued that Switzerland do its share to contain the planet heating by the Paris agreement target of 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels.

The court ruled that Swiss authorities had not acted in time to come up with a good enough strategy to cut emissions. It also found the applicants had not had appropriate access to justice in Switzerland.

The Portuguese young people – who because of their age will see greater climate damage than previous generations – argued that climate-fuelled disasters such as wildfires and smoke threatened their right to life and discriminated against them based on their age.

The court did not admit the case, deciding that the applicants could not bring cases against countries other than Portugal and adding that they had not pursued legal avenues in Portugal against the government.

“Their [the Swiss] win is a win for us, too,” said Sofia Oliveira, a 19-year-old applicant in the Portuguese case. “And a win for everyone.”

The French case, brought by the MEP Damien Carême, argued that France’s failure to do enough to stop climate change violated his rights to life and privacy and family life. Mr Carême filed the case when he was the mayor of Grand-Synthe, a coastal town vulnerable to flooding. The court did not admit the case because Carême no longer lives there.

Today’s rulings do not therefore consider whether the emissions reduction policies of the Respondent governments other than Switzerland are compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. “These rulings have, however, set out the obligations of all signatories to the Convention to address climate change, making them a landmark precedent with consequences for all European governments,” GLAN said in a statement.

While the court does not have the power to sanction governments for failing to comply with its judgments, this ruling can be used in cases brought at the national level to hold governments accountable for failure to comply with them, it said. “It is therefore expected that today’s ruling will bring about a new wave of climate change cases in domestic courts in Europe.”

They would also strengthen the position of claimants in ongoing climate cases, including one in Sweden and another in the Netherlands against Shell.

The rulings have also set a precedent for other international courts to follow. There are climate change cases ongoing at the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times