Six Portuguese boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 24 in the large hall of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in front of an army of 87 lawyers from 32 European countries. It is perhaps the most eloquent summary of what happened this Wednesday in the French city of Strasbourg, where the hearing took place on the climate lawsuit that these six young people have launched against both the 27 members of the European Union and Norway, Russia , Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Turkey. These countries, which coordinated their defense, based their arguments on the inadmissibility of this case by emphasizing that the international fight against climate change is governed by the Paris Agreement and not the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, according to legal sources present at the hearing, the Nations Defense also stated that the plaintiffs had not exhausted national remedies before turning to the ECtHR. Finally, they argued that the causal link between climate change and the harm children allegedly suffer is not clear. The case has been heard for sentencing, a verdict expected to be handed down by the middle of next year.
To find out the origin of this case, we have to go back to the terrible fires that devastated Portugal in 2017. Three years later, the six young people – all family members – decided to turn to the ECtHR, arguing that the climate crisis compromises several of the principles protected by the Convention. European Union of Human Rights. For example, in the right to life, to respect private and family life, not to be treated inhumanely or degradingly and not to be discriminated against.
Young people argue that they are suffering from breathing problems or anxiety due to climate change. “Climate change has a profound impact on our lives,” warned Sofia dos Santos Oliveira, 18 years old and one of the plaintiffs, a few days ago in a meeting with EL PAÍS and other international media. “It has severely limited our ability to participate in basic activities such as going out and enjoying the day (…). “I have what is called fear of climate change.”
Climate lawsuits around the world have multiplied in recent years, forcing various governments to be more ambitious and take action against major emitters of greenhouse gases or projects that further fuel global warming. According to the latest research from the United Nations Environment Program, the total number of cases increased from 884 in 2017 to 2,180 in 2022. But none of these countries had so many countries indicted at the same time. Regardless of how this case ends, it is already a symbolic victory for climate activists that it has reached the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.
“Today’s case is about young people, it’s about the price they pay for the failure of states to address the climate emergency.” “This is about the harm they will suffer over the course of their lives if states are failing in their responsibilities,” lawyer Alison Macdonald, representing the six young people, said in statements collected by Portal at the start of the hearing.
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“The defendant states understand very well the seriousness of the fight against climate change,” said Sudhanshu Swaroop, the lawyer who represented the UK’s interests. However, he pointed out that the ECtHR had no jurisdiction to deal with this case, since the fight against climate change is regulated by the Paris Agreement, in which almost two hundred nations are represented under the auspices of the United Nations and not by the European Union Human Rights Convention.
Climate activists this Wednesday in front of the doors of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Pascal Bastien (AP/LAPRESSE)
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, the 32 countries decided to pool their defense. The United Kingdom was responsible for putting forward the arguments regarding the lack of jurisdiction of this court to investigate this case. Portugal has made it its mission to highlight that national judicial options have not yet been exhausted before going to the ECtHR (a prerequisite for reaching Strasbourg); and Belgium has focused on denying that there is a direct causal link between the damage reported by the six teenagers and climate change, as judicial sources present at this hearing explained to EL PAÍS. Ultimately, the states have based their defense on the inadmissibility of this case by this court. In addition, representatives of the European Commission also took the floor and highlighted that the EU “has the most ambitious targets against climate change in the world,” the same sources added.
After the hearing, plaintiff Cláudia Duarte Agostinho, 24, regretted the attitude of the countries: “What we just heard is very sad.” The governments have just said that what is happening around us is not important. “They are trying to minimize the impact of climate change on our human rights.” His cousin André Oliveira, 15, added: “I am shocked at the attempt by countries to ignore the evidence and trivialize the damage we are already suffering “But I continue to hope that the court understands the urgency of this situation and decides in favor of our case,” emphasized this boy, who, like his colleagues in this case, had the support of the NGO Global Legal Action Network (GLAN). ).
“We are confident that the court has given us a lot of positive signals so far,” commented Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of GLAN, referring to the fact that the ECtHR has finally decided to refer the case to the Grand Chamber, which is not usual is . “It is a sign that it is taking the matter very seriously and recognizes the threat that climate change poses to the enjoyment of the plaintiffs’ human rights,” he added in a statement. In addition, there are two other climate lawsuits being examined in this space, albeit against specific countries and not collective ones like this one: a lawsuit against the Swiss government, brought by an association of older people, and another by a former mayor of a French city . , including against his government. It is not impossible that a joint verdict could finally be reached.
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