Swiss parliament considers snubbing European court climate ruling


  • World
  • Wednesday, 12 Jun 2024

FILE PHOTO: Supporters and members of the association Senior Women for Climate Protection hold banners as they arrive for the ruling in the climate case Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, April 9, 2024. The slogan reads "Climate justice". REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo

BERN (Reuters) -The lower house of the Swiss parliament votes on Wednesday on a motion rejecting a landmark ruling ordering Switzerland to do more to combat global warming, a move that could encourage others to resist the influence of international courts.

In April, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg issued an unprecedented judgment that said Bern had violated the human rights of a group of older Swiss women, the KlimaSeniorinnen, by failing to tackle climate change.

But Bern's right-leaning upper house passed a non-binding motion this month blasting the court's "judicial activism" and argued there was no reason to take further action because Switzerland was already doing enough.

Several lawmakers denounced the court's "interference" in Swiss democracy and parliament's largest party, the Swiss People's Party (SVP), said it would back the motion. Several older women who brought the case to Strasbourg looked on, occasionally shaking their heads in disapproval.

While the governing Federal Council is free to break with parliament, the environment minister, one of its members, has also appeared to play down the ruling.

Isabela Keuschnigg, legal researcher with the London School of Economics, said that if the government refused to implement the ruling, it could "set a concerning precedent, undermining the role of legal oversight in democratic governance".

Such an act, if formalised, would be unprecedented in the Council of Europe.

But it would also be evidence of political pushback against international climate action, especially after broad far-right gains in this month's European parliament election.

The case is part of a raft of climate litigation moving through world courts. Latin America's human rights court is set to issue an advisory opinion later this year after staging hearings across the region.

The ECtHR is the first regional court to hand down a climate ruling, in this case setting a sweeping precedent for all 46 signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  Bern must now tell the Council of Europe, to which the court belongs, by October how it will implement the decision.

No member state has ever refused to implement a judgment, said Council of Europe spokesperson Andrew Cutting, although he stressed that the Swiss case was at a "very early stage" of implementation. A committee of the Council meets four times a year to monitor compliance with ECtHR rulings.

Those affected by rulings can raise complaints and, in exceptional cases, the committee can refer these back to the ECtHR. This has happened only twice in the court’s 65-year history.

AUTHORITY OF INTERNATIONAL COURTS QUESTIONED

Still, it is not unusual for countries to be slow to implement ECtHR rulings, said Joana Setzer, a climate litigation expert at the LSE.

According to the European Implementation Network, nearly half of the main judgments handed down by the court in the last decade are still awaiting implementation, taking on average over six years.

If Bern does not comply, legal experts say it risks emboldening critics to push back in policy areas where national legislatures are coming into conflict with supranational bodies.   "Certain countries will try to use the Swiss resistance to say, 'If Switzerland does not implement, then why should we?'" said Helen Keller, a Swiss former judge at the ECHR.

British officials this year hinted at leaving the Convention, which the Strasbourg court oversees, due to differences over London's plan to deport irregular migrants to Rwanda.

Still, legal experts said it remained unlikely the Swiss case would trigger a mass exodus. The LSE's Setzer said there would be "significant political and social repercussions" for those countries.

Expulsion from the Council of Europe is also a possibility in extreme cases. Russia was expelled in March 2022 after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Gloria Dickie in London; Editing by Dave Graham and)

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