The inside of the European Court of Human Rights
12 Apr 2024

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issues groundbreaking judgment on climate change and human rights

The European Court of Human Rights has issued its landmark judgment in the case Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland. This acknowledges that States have the responsibility to combat climate change to protect human rights. The Court confirmed a violation of the right to respect for private and family life of Swiss elderly women because Switzerland failed to implement sufficient measures to combat climate change. ENNHRI welcomes the judgment. In its third-party intervention, it underlined States’ responsibility to combat climate change effectively in order to protect rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is the case about?

The case was brought by a group of older women and their association in Switzerland who alleged that the State was not doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As a consequence, it was exposing them to life-threatening heatwaves in violation of the right to life and the right to private and family life enshrined in Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). The applicants also alleged a violation of the right to a fair trial (Article 6) and the right to an effective remedy (Article 13), because the Swiss courts had dismissed their claims on procedural grounds.

What did the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights rule?

Violation of the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8 of the Convention)

On 9 April 2024, the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) ruled that Switzerland had failed to act in time and in an appropriate and consistent manner to devise, develop and implement relevant legislation and measures to mitigate the effects of climate change. Therefore, Switzerland had failed to comply with its positive obligations under the Convention and exceeded its margin of appreciation.

The Court stated that Article 8 of the Convention must be seen as encompassing a right for individuals to effective protection by State authorities from serious adverse effects of climate change on their life, health, well-being and quality of life. The Court ruled that the State’s primary duty is to adopt, and to effectively apply in practice, regulations and measures capable of mitigating the existing and potentially irreversible, future effects of climate change.

At the same time, the Court underlined that States should be accorded a wide margin of appreciation regarding the choice of means adopted in order to meet internationally anchored targets and commitments in the light of priorities and resources.

Violation of the right to access to court (Article 6 § 1 of the Convention)

Moreover, the Court found that Switzerland also breached Article 6 § 1 ECHR (access to court). This was because the Swiss courts had not provided convincing reasons why they considered it unnecessary to examine the merits of the association’s complaints. The courts had failed to examine the scientific evidence concerning climate change and did not engage seriously or at all with the action brought by the association. Thus, the essence of the right to access to court was impaired.

Locus standi of individuals and associations clarified

Crucially, the Court also confirmed that in this case the association had the right to lodge an application to the Court under Article 34 of the Convention on account of the alleged failure of a State to take adequate measures to protect individuals against the adverse effects of climate change on human lives and health. To be able to do so, the Court established the three conditions below that are to be met by such an association:

  • Be lawfully established in the jurisdiction concerned or have standing to act there;
  • Be able to demonstrate that it pursues a dedicated purpose in accordance with its statutory objectives in the defence of the human rights of its members or other affected individuals within the jurisdiction concerned, whether limited to or including collective action for the protection of those rights against the threats arising from climate change;
  • Be able to demonstrate that it can be regarded as genuinely qualified and representative to act on behalf of members or other affected individuals within the jurisdiction who are subject to specific threats or adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health or well-being as protected under the Convention.

The Court also clarified the conditions which have to be met by individuals to claim victim status under Article 34 of the Convention in the context of complaints concerning harm or risk of harm resulting from alleged failures by the State to combat climate change. At the same time, the Court admitted that the threshold for fulfilling the below criteria is especially high, as:

  • The applicant must be subject to a high intensity of exposure to the adverse effects of climate change, that is, the level and severity of (the risk of) adverse consequences of governmental action or inaction affecting the applicant must be significant; and
  • There must be a pressing need to ensure the applicant’s individual protection, owing to the absence or inadequacy of any reasonable measures to reduce harm.

Relevance of ENNHRI’s third-party intervention for the case

In September 2021 and December 2022, ENNHRI submitted a third-party intervention to the Court (first to the Chamber, and once the case was relinquished, to the Grand Chamber). As a neutral party in the case, ENNHRI outlined the internationally applicable standards and domestic practices. The submission was developed under the lead of the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution, with support of a group of members from ENNHRI’s Legal Working Group and Working Group on the Climate Crisis and Human Rights.

The Court’s judgment aligns with ENNHRI’s submission regarding the applicability of the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8 of the Convention) and the right to access to court (Article 6 § 1 of the Convention). In its intervention, ENNHRI underlined that Article 8 of the Convention obliges States to take appropriate measures to protect the right to private life, including adopting an effective legislative and administrative framework. ENNHRI also stated that the very essence of the right to access to court would be impaired if procedural limitations effectively preclude judicial oversight in cases aiming to protect the right to life and physical integrity now, before the carbon budget to avoid the critical 1.5°C threshold is exceeded.

The Court’s judgment also aligns with ENNHRI’s third-party intervention in regards to associations’ right to lodge a complaint to the Court in climate cases. ENNHRI provided the Court with arguments to support interpreting the victim requirement in an evolutive manner to allow representative complaints from environmental associations in this particular context.

ENNHRI welcomes this judgment. It is a landmark for safeguarding human rights enshrined in the Convention against the harmful impacts of climate change.

What did the Grand Chamber rule in two other climate cases?

ENNHRI also intervened as a third-party in two other climate cases ruled by the Court – Duarte Agostinho and others v. Portugal and others and Carême v. France. On 9 April 2024, the Court found both of them to be inadmissible.

In Carême v. France, the Court stated that the applicant did not have a victim status under Article 34 of the Convention because he was no longer living in the area the case revolved around.

In Duarte Agostinho and others v. Portugal and others, the Court underlined the lack of exhaustion of domestic remedies. The Court also pointed to the lack of legal basis to justify extending, by way of judicial interpretation, the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the respondent States other than Portugal in the manner suggested by the applicants.

The full picture – the judgment and ENNHRI interventions to the Court

Read the complete text of the judgment and ENNHRI’s interventions in the cases below.

Watch the Court recording and an ENNHRI video about the third-party intervention in the KlimaSeniorinnen case, as well as read the transcript of the intervention:

ENNHRI will draw on the judgment in its continued work on climate change and human rights.