ECHR makes climate protection a human right: what comes next?


Climate protection is a human right, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) established on Tuesday when it ruled that Switzerland had violated the right to protection from serious adverse effects of climate change with an inadequate climate policy. The case was brought by the association Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland. Commentators discuss the ruling and its potential consequences.


La Tribune de Genève (CH) /

A bold and exemplary judgment

La Tribune de Genève is full of praise:

“The ECHR’s decision is exemplary at a time when more and more states, frightened by the rise of populism and the surge of the far right in the next European elections, are postponing or watering down their climate objectives. ... Many no longer want ‘punitive ecology’ and now swear by ‘incentives’ alone. As we have seen again recently in the face of farmers’ anger, the fight for a better environment has become a burden that no one wants to bear. The 17 judges in Strasbourg have finally made one thing clear: these backward-looking climate policies run counter to our fundamental rights. The judges’ message is bold. Justice is not about political contortions or chasing voters.”

Virginie Lenk
De Standaard (BE) /

Pyrrhic victory for activists

De Standaard fears negative consequences:

“A first consequence of this decision may be that states become more vulnerable if they pursue more ambitious goals. The more ambitious the targets, the greater the risk that they will not be achieved and therefore the greater the risk of condemnation. A second consequence is that the basis for climate action could diminish. If judges put a majority of the population in their place, they are effectively forcing the government to commit political suicide. They generally end up being penalised in elections for pushing through measures that do not have a majority.”

Ruben Mooijman
Blick (CH) /

Better climate policy than climate justice

Blick also sees potential downsides to the judgement:

“The Human Rights Court is there to help individual citizens assert their rights when they are wronged as individuals in their own country. But this ruling has a new dimension. It basically demands that Switzerland adapt its environmental policy to the needs of the senior citizens who brought the case. ... The fronts in climate policy are likely to harden even further. ... Switzerland is still a long way from where it should be in terms of climate policy. But we want to fight democratically for the right measures. We want an effective climate policy, not climate justice.”

Rolf Cavalli
The Times (GB) /

Not a matter for Strasbourg

The ECHR is overstepping its mandate and will likely trigger a wave of lawsuits with this ruling, complains The Times:

“This is spectacular judicial overreach. The court is involving itself directly in democratic politics, adjudicating on policy questions that are properly left to governments and leaders accountable to electorates. Today, climate change. Tomorrow … where next might the court expand its remit? Perhaps those of us who think we are entering a war era should take a case to Strasbourg seeking judicial support to compel governments to spend much more on defence and deter Russia from threatening our right to life.”

Iain Martin
Avvenire (IT) /

Setting a precedent for climate change rulings

Avvenire hopes the signal sent by this ruling will have an impact far beyond Europe:

“This judgement by the European Court of Human Rights, a body of the 46-state Council of Europe which for the first time has upheld a group of citizens’ complaint against their government’s failure to combat climate change, will go down in history. ... The Strasbourg judgement also sets a precedent for other international courts, as other climate cases are pending before the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”

Anna Maria Brogi
Aargauer Zeitung (CH) /

Political impact questionable

The judgement is a beacon of hope, writes the Aargauer Zeitung:

“Not just for Switzerland, but for the whole world. For the first time, an international court has elevated climate protection to the status of a human right. Anyone who dismisses this decision as political or questions the court’s jurisdiction in Switzerland is ultimately devaluing the entire judicial system and human rights. However another thing about beacons is that in and of themselves, they are ineffective. The case put forward by the Senior Women for Climate Protection was a professionally staged media spectacle that relied on powerful symbolism from the outset. Switzerland will not change one iota of its climate legislation simply because of this ruling.”

Benjamin Rosch
tagesschau.de (DE) /

Future generations will be grateful

The judgement has consequences, writes tageschau.de:

“The European Court of Human Rights can’t itself send bailiffs to the respective countries to enforce its judgements. ... But over the years it has developed a tactic of gruelling politeness vis-à-vis recalcitrant states like Russia or Turkey. Such states are repeatedly reminded that they have yet to implement a judgement. They are threatened with a significant loss of prestige if they fail to respect human rights. It is therefore to be expected that the governments of the member states will in one way or another comply when it comes to climate protection. It is quite possible that future generations will be truly grateful to the ECHR.”

Gigi Deppe
Politiken (DK) /

Survival is a human right

Politiken agrees with the ECHR:

“Making protection from climate change part of human rights may seem extreme, but it is actually only logical. After all, the most fundamental human right is the right to life, and this naturally includes the right to live in a climate that is not deadly. ... An international court has now established the principle that people have a legal right to climate protection measures by their state. Limiting emissions is not only an obligation between states, but also a legal right of citizens.”

Sydsvenskan (SE) /

Political issues don’t belong in court

The ECHR rejected two previous environmental complaints on legal grounds: Portuguese citizens sued 33 states for not doing enough to combat climate change and a French ex-mayor accused Paris of failing to protect his city from flooding. Sydsvenskan comments:

“The two dismissed cases illustrate how dangerous it is to bring complaints against states or authorities for alleged violations of the law. ... Such lawsuits are on the borderline between law and politics, and political issues should not be decided in court. They belong in political assemblies, open debates and democratic elections in which political responsibility is demanded. There is the risk that important political issues will lose attention and support if courts dismiss cases on legal grounds without taking a position on the substance of the case.”