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A New Classic in Climate Change Litigation: The Dutch Supreme Court Decision in the Urgenda Case

Published on January 6, 2020        Author:  and

 

 

The judgment of the Dutch Supreme Court in State of the Netherlands v Urgenda is a landmark for future climate change litigation. On the 20th of December 2019, the Supreme Court held that on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) the Netherlands has a positive obligation to take measures for the prevention of climate change and that it has to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with at least 25% by the end of 2020, compared to 1990 levels. An unofficial translation of the full judgement will be published on the website of the Dutch judiciary after the 13th of January 2020.

The judgment is significant as it demonstrates how a court can determine responsibilities of an individual state, notwithstanding the fact that climate change is caused by a multiplicity of other actors who share responsibility for its harmful effects. Around the world, a flood of lawsuits has been initiated to establish legal responsibility for actors contributing to climate change. The Urgenda judgment, that has been heralded as the ‘strongest’ of all, makes clear that the fact the a state is only a minor contributor compared to many other actors, does not preclude its individual responsibility. The judgment contains important pointers that plaintiffs and courts can rely on in similar cases.

In this blogpost we briefly recap the procedure leading to the Supreme Court judgment and discuss three conclusions reached by the Supreme Court that will be of wider interest:

1) the ECHR imposed a positive obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent to climate change;

2) these measures should at least ensure that the Netherlands realizes a reduction of GHG emissions by 25%, compared to 1990, by the end of 2020; and

3) even though the Netherlands was only a minor contributor to climate change, it had an independent obligation to reduce emissions.

Recap of the proceedings

Central to the proceedings was the reduction target for developed nations of 25%-40% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, originally identified as one scenario in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Netherlands had embraced this target in 2007, stating that it aimed to reduce Dutch emissions with 30% by 2020. Yet in 2011, the government indicated that it would not meet the target, instead aiming for 14-17% reduction.

In 2013, a Dutch NGO with a mission to contribute to sustainability and innovation called Urgenda (‘urgent agenda)’, initiated a lawsuit against the Dutch State with the aim to order the State to reduce Dutch GHG emissions by 40% at the end of the year 2020, or at least by a minimum of 25% in comparison the year 1990.

In the 2015 judgment of the Hague District Court, Urgenda prevailed. The District Court ordered the State to ‘limit the joint volume of Dutch annual greenhouse gas emissions, or have them limited, such that this volume will have been reduced by at least 25% at the end of 2020 compared to the level of the year 1990′. The District Court based this order on the doctrine of hazardous negligence, which is read into the provision on tort in the Dutch Civil Code: behaviour is inter alia considered tortious if it unnecessarily creates danger and thus is contrary to what ‘according to unwritten law is deemed fit in societal interrelations’ (Article 6:162). Contrary to Urgenda’s claim, the District Court did not ground its conclusion directly on human rights law, as it held that Urgenda could not invoke human rights provisions stemming from the ECHR (nor could it invoke the United Nations Convention against Climate Change (UNFCCC)). Read the rest of this entry…

 

Readings 2016: On the Fringes of International Law

Published on December 30, 2016        Author: 

Editor’s Note: As in previous years, EJIL’s Book Review Editor, Isabel Feichtner, invited our Board members to reflect on the books that have had a significant impact on them this year. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They include books, not necessarily published in 2016, but read or reread this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. These editors’ choices are not intended to be a prize in disguise, but rather are personalized accounts of the reading experiences of our Board members. Today we have André Nollkaempe’s selection.

The five titles on my 2016 list of books relate to international law in very different ways. What they have in common is that they are not so much concerned with the substance of international law, but rather with questions relating to its emergence and the practical implications of international law. Sometimes books that hardly use the language of international law can be most illuminating for international lawyers.

Peter Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice. A Report from the Arctic (Allen Lane, 2016)

Peter Wadhams’ A Farewell to Ice masterfully shows how the liberties of international law impact on climate change and result in a thinning and retreating of polar ice with scary speed and consequences. Wadhams, a polar researcher in Cambridge, notes that ‘we have created an ocean where there was once an ice sheet’ and that this is ‘[m]an’s first major achievement in reshaping the face of his planet’. Wadhams pictures a particularly glooming scenario for 2035, when the Arctic seabeds – permafrost from the last ice age – will melt and release massive methane plumes that are over 20 times more effective in raising global temperature than all the CO2 we have focused on. The book sketches powerful images of floods, fires, droughts, storms, and inundation of low-lying areas –with dramatic consequences for human habitation and lives. While international law has facilitated and legitimized the policies leading to these consequences, Wadhams vests some hope in international law; he sees the Paris Agreement as a sign of common will to act. Yet, much more is needed to avert the gloomy consequences of climate change – mainly research and investment in new technologies (wind, wave, solar, tidal and nuclear energy) need to be incentivized. Post-US elections this is not a happy reading, but one that is needed to compel us to action.
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Filed under: Editorials, EJIL
 
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Editor’s Book Choices: André Nollkaemper

Published on December 24, 2014        Author: 

Gary J. Bass. The Blood Telegram. Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. New York, Toronto: Random House, 2014. Pp. 544. $16.95. ISBN: 9780307744623.

This may seem like an odd pick in a list of best books of the year for an international law forum. There is little in this book that expressly addresses international law, and the term ‘international law’ is only used a handful of times.

However, it is precisely the absence of law that makes the book compelling. It is a powerful reminder of the frailty of international law in international crises. The weakness of international law in such moments may have been particularly apparent in the Nixon era, but of course is more generally relevant.

The story that Gary Bass, a political scientist at Princeton, tells us is not totally unknown. [See for earlier discussions eg Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Harvard University Press: 2013); Deborah Mayersen, Annie Pohlman Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Asia: Legacies and Prevention (Routledge, 2013). Also Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002) has relevant insights.] Much has been disclosed already about the decision of the United States in 1971 not to use its powers to stop the killing of an estimated 300,000 Bengals (most of them Hindus) by the Pakistani Army. The US also did not act to prevent the fleeing of about 10 million Bengals to India. The US found it more important to maintain good relations with the Pakistani president Yahya Khan so that he could serve as a liaison with China and prepare the way for the opening to China. Moreover, they wished to strengthen and prepare Pakistan for battle with Cold War enemy India. The US not only wilfully abstained from pressuring Yahya Khan to change his ways. Virtually the entire Pakistani military was equipped with American weaponry and depended on the United States to keep it operating.

What makes the account by Bass a must-read is not so much this tragedy as such, but the gripping and excruciating detail in which it zooms in on the doings of Nixon and Kissinger, who was at that time Nixon’s national security adviser.  Read the rest of this entry…

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A Shared Responsibility Trap: Supplying Weapons to the Syrian Opposition

Published on June 17, 2013        Author: 
Syran Opposition Flag (Source: Wikipedia)

Syrian Opposition Flag (Wikipedia)

Cross-posted at the SHARES Blog

In the last few weeks, a shared responsibility trap has arisen in relation to the conflict in Syria. On 4 June 2013, the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic documented that anti-government forces have engaged in a wide range of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. At the same time, several States are inching towards openly supplying the Syrian opposition with arms. On 27 May, the Council of Ministers of the European Union decided not to renew the arms embargo against Syria. On 14 June, the United States announced that it plans to provide weapons in response to its finding that Syria has used chemical weapons.

 States that are now considering supplying weapons to the opposition forces in Syria run a risk of falling into a shared responsibility trap. They may have noble motives in seeking to save the population from atrocities. They may even consider that they should act in the spirit of the responsibility to protect, and should exercise a shared responsibility to protect individuals against the Assad regime. But there is a twist to such noble aims. States that provide weapons to the opposition will eventually share the responsibility for whatever the opposition does with those weapons. Read the rest of this entry…

 

The ECtHR Finds Macedonia Responsible in Connection with Torture by the CIA, but on What Basis?

Published on December 24, 2012        Author: 

André Nollkaemper is Professor of Public International Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam. He directs the project on ‘Shared Responsibility in International Law’ (SHARES); this piece is cross-posted on the SHARES Blog.

On 13 December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (‘the Court’) found the that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (‘Macedonia’) was responsible in connection with the ill-treatment and torture of Khaled El-Masri. The judgment adds a further chapter to the Court’s rich case law on situations where a state party is held responsible in connection with the (wrongful) acts of another state.

El-Masri, a Lebanese-born German national, alleged that in the period from 31 December 2003 to 29 May 2004 he had been subjected to a secret rendition operation, in which agents of Macedonia had arrested him, held him incommunicado, questioned and ill-treated him, and handed him over at Skopje Airport to CIA agents who then transferred him to Afghanistan, where he had been detained and ill-treated for over four months.

No one who reads the facts of the case will argue with the Court’s conclusion that Macedonia had to bear international responsibility. The question is on what grounds one can base this conclusion.

The approach chosen by the Court may surprise many international lawyers. Influenced by decades of work of the International Law Commission (‘ILC’), their approach would be a combination of attribution of conduct on the one hand and the breach of an international obligation, on the other: Macedonia then would be responsible for handing over El-Masri to the CIA, in the face of risk (if not certainty) that he would be ill-treated and tortured. They would not normally say that the act of ill-treatment at the hands of the CIA itself is attributed to Macedonia, but limit Macedonia´s responsibility to its own wrongful conduct. This distinction may seem a legal nicety, but it may have practical relevance (for questions of evidence and reparation) and also reflects that what is essentially a sovereignty-based consideration: it should not easily be presumed that a state is responsible for acts committed by another subject of international law.

The Court takes a somewhat different approach. But it is quite difficult to figure out what exactly this approach is. While the fact that the Court does not feel compelled to follow the ILC´s conceptual straightjacket is in many respects refreshing, its own line is at times somewhat inconsistent and confusing. For one thing, it is difficult to see why the Court uses interchangeably the terms ´attribution´ and ´imputation´ – one may guess that the Court uses the latter when it seeks to leave aside the ILC´s approach, but it would be nice if the Court would not invite us to speculate.

Read the rest of this entry…

 

Research Project on Shared Responsibility in International Law (SHARES)

Published on April 14, 2011        Author: 

The Research Project on Shared Responsibility in International Law (SHARES) is pleased to announce the official launch of the SHARES website: www.sharesproject.nl.

The website includes a detailed description of the SHARES project and its project members. The website also features news, events, publications, blog posts and resources on shared responsibility in international law.

The ambition of the SHARES project is to examine an unexplored and largely unrecognized problem: the allocation of international responsibilities among multiple states and other actors. It seeks to uncover the nature and extent of the problem of sharing responsibility in an increasingly interdependent and heterogeneous international legal order. SHARES will therefore offer new concepts, principles and perspectives for understanding how the international legal order may deal with shared responsibilities.

The SHARES project is a research project of the Amsterdam Center for International Law, led by Professor André Nollkaemper, and funded by the European Research Council.

 
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