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‘Really dangerous’: Why activists are so worried by Switzerland's rejection of climate case ruling

Switzerland's Anne Mahrer, former National Councilor of the Green Party and co-president of KlimaSeniorinnen, attends a hearing at the ECHR in March 2023.
Switzerland's Anne Mahrer, former National Councilor of the Green Party and co-president of KlimaSeniorinnen, attends a hearing at the ECHR in March 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias
Copyright AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias
By Isabella Kaminski
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The group of older Swiss women won an ‘historic’ case in the European Court of Human Rights but now the Swiss government is pushing back.

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A group of older Swiss women who won a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights on climate change are urging their government to fully comply with the judgment.

In April, the court ruled in favour of an association of more than 2,000 women, known as the KlimaSeniorinnen, stating for the first time that insufficient government inaction to tackle greenhouse gas emissions is a breach of human rights.

It was seen as a historic decision, not only in Europe but around the world.

Swiss politicians fought the case from the start

However, there was resistance within Switzerland from the start, with the rightwing Swiss People’s Party immediately accusing the court of overreach and calling for the country to leave the Council of Europe.

Then this week politicians voted to declare that Switzerland was already doing enough to cut its emissions and so no further action was needed, in effect snubbing the landmark ruling. 

The Swiss parliament's upper house had already passed a non-binding motion labelling the court's ruling on the case as "inadmissible and disproportionate judicial activism". The lower house has now followed suit, voting on 111 votes in favour and 72 against.

While the votes are not binding on Switzerland’s federal government, they have caused serious concern. 

Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, co-president of the KlimaSeniorinnen, describes it as a “betrayal”. One third of the members of the association are over 75 and one has died since the application was lodged. 

"The declaration is not worthy of a constitutional state. [It] is an attempt to continue to prevent climate protection required by human rights for political reasons, instead of recognising that climate change is a scientific reality that affects everyone.” 

Climate campaigners say the snub is 'shocking’

Georg Klingler, climate campaigner at Greenpeace Switzerland which supported the women’s lawsuit, had anticipated some domestic opposition to the judgment but not the scale of it. 

“We knew from the beginning that the right-wing party will attack the court. But we didn't expect that the whole middle party - the Christian Democrats and also the Liberals - will join that attack. To me it was quite shocking to see what they did.”

Opposition to the ruling is almost totally political, according to Corina Heri, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich. “It's very much about signalling, but I think the signal that is being sent is a really dangerous one. This kind of position, especially from states that are widely seen as human rights compliant, sends a signal to other states that you can pick and choose which judgments you want to comply with.”

Nor does it properly engage with the legal substance, Heri says. Swiss parliamentarians have been trading in misinformation, she says, by claiming the court has recognised a new right to a healthy environment when it did not.

On the plus side, Heri says there still appears to be willingness to engage with the implementation process. The 17-judge panel did not prescribe exactly what Switzerland should do to address breaching the women’s human rights, giving the government six months to present a plan to the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers. 

They will be the first ones responsible for ensuring the judgment, which is legally binding, is upheld.

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What the ruling could mean for Switzerland - and Europe’s - climate policies

Greenpeace’s Klingler is less optimistic. “I think the signal of both chambers of parliament adopting such a declaration is quite strong,” he says. Even if the federal government does not explicitly follow parliament’s lead, it will find it difficult to develop more ambitious climate policies in such a hostile environment.

“I fear that also the committee of ministers could accept the weaker implementation, or maybe even a non-implementation,” says Klingler. “Given the European elections that we've seen now, there could also be pushback from the foreign ministers of all those countries.”

Switzerland is not the only country where the court’s ruling has been received negatively. After all, it has clear implications for other European countries, many of which have not set ambitious emission reduction targets or put in place good climate governance. 

The UK, for example, saw a backlash from some politicians and rightwing media.

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The German Bundestag, on the other hand, passed a resolution just a few weeks after the ruling, calling on the government to examine its consequences on climate protection rights embedded within a recently amended climate law.

Public petition

The Swiss government says it will address the matter after the summer. Campaigners who are urging it to respect the judgment are gathering a petition that has already been signed by more than 20,000 people. 

“Failing to execute the judgment would mean that Switzerland continues its inadequate climate actions, taking more than its fair share of the remaining global carbon budget, and contributing to exceeding the global temperature limit of 1.5°C,” says Cordelia Bähr, senior lawyer for the KlimaSeniorinnen. 

“This would have severe implications for the human rights of not only older women but all affected individuals.”

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As well as limiting action on climate in Switzerland, resistance to accepting the binding legal nature of the judgment risks undermining the authority of the European Court of Human Rights, says Klingler. 

Council of Europe spokesperson Andrew Cutting told Euronews Green that no member state had so far refused to implement a judgment. But in “exceptional cases” the committee of ministers can refer cases back to the court. “This procedure has only ever been invoked twice, as a result of significant and long-standing problems in the implementation process.”

“Attacking this cornerstone is an attempt to fundamentally undermine the legitimacy and the scope of action of the court,” agrees senior lawyer Bähr. The declaration by the federal assembly thus tries to weaken the protection of human rights across Europe.”

“If it becomes the norm to ignore unwelcome court decisions and classify them as political,” she continues, “we face not only a problem regarding climate litigation but also a profound democratic and rule-of-law crisis.”

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