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Climate protection – a human right

With the ECHR ruling in favor of the activists from Switzerland it is clear: climate protection is a human rights issue and can be challenged in court. However, plaintiffs must proceed in certain ways.

Max Bauer

There are three lawsuits that were decided today in Strasbourg. One is from the Association of Swiss Climate Seniors – 2,000 Swiss women who point out that climate change is particularly affecting older women. In addition, teenagers and young adults from Portugal and a mayor of a French community on the Atlantic had sued.

They all argued similarly: their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights will be violated if states do not do more to combat climate change. Hundreds of people have already died in forest fires and floods in their home countries alone. The spectacular thing about the Portuguese lawsuit: They had sued 32 countries in Europe – directly in Strasbourg, without first taking legal action in their own country, as is usually the case.

However, her lawsuit was unsuccessful. The court says that the young people cannot sue any number of states that have no control over their lives in Portugal. That would be too far-reaching liability for states for the consequences of climate change in other countries. And in Portugal itself, the young people would have had to turn to the courts first.

Representative action is permitted

However, the lawsuit filed by Swiss climate seniors against what they see as inadequate Swiss climate policy must be viewed as a great success. “This is the best day, this will make history,” said climate senior Ruth Saxer after the verdict was announced.

And in fact, Strasbourg made a very broad ruling: According to the Court, there is a right under the Human Rights Convention according to which associations can sue for better climate protection on behalf of those affected by climate change.

This is a great success, says law professor Gerd Winter. He represented various environmental associations as participants in the proceedings. In the Swiss lawsuit, the court allowed representative action for the first time, emphasizes Winter: “So far, only individual people have been able to sue. And the court has accepted: climate protection is something different, climate change affects a lot of people and you should be able to pool interests. But only in the form of associations.”

There are rules for the association

Associations that sue in the name of climate protection must meet certain requirements, he explains. “The first is: the goal of the association must be climate protection. The second is: the association must have existed for some time. And the third is: it must be structured in such a way that it can actually represent its members.”

The Strasbourg Court emphasizes: Climate change is a common concern of humanity. Politicians are responsible for this, but also courts in the individual states and the human rights court.

States are responsible for the negative consequences of climate change on life, health and quality of life. And because of the causal relationship between state action – or inaction – and climate consequences, individuals or associations should be able to claim better climate protection as a human right.

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