Bloomberg Law
April 5, 2023, 9:23 AM

Global Climate Cases Move International Human Rights Law Debate

Jennifer Hijazi
Jennifer Hijazi

Climate and human rights attorneys are closely watching a trio of international cases that advanced last week, moving the dial further toward holding nations accountable for their commitments to cutting emissions.

A pair of cases in Europe challenging government inaction on climate change now await decisions from the highest echelon of judges at the European Court of Human Rights, which means the court’s first-ever climate judgment could be expected this year.

A ruling in KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz v. Switzerland, a case brought by a coalition of senior women who claim the Swiss government isn’t doing enough to mitigate climate impacts that affect their health, , could shape “the future trajectory of similar cases across Europe and far beyond,” according to human rights attorney Joie Chowdhury.

A second hearing was held in Carême v. France, which was brought by a former mayor against the central French government for failing to adequately protect life through climate change action.

And while spectators crammed into a packed Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights for the dual hearings on March 29, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that will yield an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on a climate change and human rights motion brought by the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu.

The historic resolution “is the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate cooperation,” according to H.E. Ishmael Kalsakau, the prime minister of Vanuatu, who delivered remarks on the resolution last week.

Building Blocks

There is still a long way to go before climate change could be enshrined in global humans right law, but motions like these add necessary building blocks toward more affirmative obligations, observers say.

Certain countries have the right to a healthy environment and climate baked into their constitutions. But such rights aren’t included in universally binding mechanisms, such as the bedrock UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The International Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights may not issue affirmative obligations on climate and human rights, but having international judges probe that nexus is useful, especially ahead of multilateral climate events, including this year’s Conference of the Parties summit in the United Arab Emirates.

In the near term, the fact that courts like the International Court of Justice are even hearing these cases is a hugely significant development, according to Maria Antonia Tigre, a global climate litigation fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

“Despite what the court finds in terms of the obligations, I find it very unlikely that the court will either refrain from answering a question on the linkage between human rights and climate change, or say something that is damaging,” Tigre said.

Having an examination of new sets of legal issues on record is also a key milestone, according to Tigre. Judges last week grilled parties on admissibility, victim status, when harm has occurred, and other case elements that are still being hashed out in courts globally and in the US.

Ultimately, the trajectory toward climate as a human right isn’t going to rely on one or two big cases. The progress to watch is how quickly these developments pile up and create momentum, University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood told Bloomberg Law.

“We’re looking at how fast the dominoes are falling in favor of true accountability,” Wood said. “That’s the pot of gold at the end.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Hijazi in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at; Renee Schoof at

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