Citizens to sue government over climate policy

For older people, extended periods of heat can be threatening. Keystone

A group of women is planning to take the Swiss government to court over its alleged failure to take the necessary measures to combat climate change. This form of citizens’ involvement is new for Switzerland but similar legal steps have been taken successfully in the Netherlands and in the United States.

This content was published on August 23, 2016 - 16:30
Renat Künzi,

About 150 senior citizens claim that older women in particular suffer from the effects of climate change, including long heat waves.

The group said it planned to lodge a legal complaint later this year.

The women accuse Environment Minister Doris Leuthard and the government of undermining the climate goals enshrined in the Swiss constitution and of violating human rights. It is not enough to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, they said.

“We are convinced that climate change is an inadmissible danger for our society. Our association seeks to bring together those particularly affected in Switzerland and to ensure a basic right to a healthy environment for future generations,” the group said in its invitation to the founding event in the Swiss capital Bern on Tuesday.

The group comprises women mainly from the political left, including a former senator for canton Geneva, Christiane Brunner, as well as Judith Giovanelli-Blocher, the 84-year-old sister of former justice minister Christoph Blocher, strongman of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

First in Switzerland

The legal instrument has never been used in Switzerland to push for a change in the official climate policy.

But it is not clear how the plaintiffs will proceed.

Elisabeth Joris says the group might initially lodge a complaint and a demand with the Federal Energy Office or with the Federal Environment Agency to tighten the implementation of the law on CO2 emissions.

They also consider sending the complaint to the minister in charge or the entire cabinet.   

Failing to get a satisfactory response in Switzerland, the group will also examine the possibility of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Ursula Brunner says the complaint is not only based on an article in the Swiss constitution but also on the European Human Rights Convention protecting the right to respect for private and family life.  

The Zurich lawyer wrote a legal expertise on the subject for the Greenpeace environmental group last year.  

Europe, Asia and US

The group says it was encouraged by a successful action in the Netherlands where a court upheld a complaint by a non-governmental organisation and 900 citizens against the Dutch government to take stronger measures for climate protection.

In April, a judge of a United States Federal District court in Oregon ruled in favour of a group of plaintiffs, aged 8-19, in a landmark constitutional climate change case brought against the US government and fossil fuel industry.

Last month, the world’s largest oil, coal, cement and mining companies were given 45 days to respond to a complaint that their greenhouse gas emissions had violated the human rights of millions of people living in the Philippines.

Plans for similar climate complaints are underway in Norway and Belgium.

What do you think of the legal action as a form of direct democracy? Let us know in the comments!

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