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switzerland: defending the right to protect our natural and cultural heritage

Since the 1960s, Swiss law has enshrined the right of organizations such as Friends of the Earth Switzerland to use the courts to challenge projects that threaten the environment or natural and cultural heritage. This legal right is now part of the United Nations Economic Commission on Europe’s Aarhus Convention that addresses public access to information and justice.

switzerland: defending the right to protect our natural and cultural heritage

Yet this law has still been challenged by right-wing politicians, representing corporate interests, who argued that environmental NGOs are holding back Switzerland’s economic development. A referendum was held on 30 November 2008.

what happened?

FoE Switzerland / Pro Natura ran a campaign against the proposed abolition. Among their arguments, they cited a study by the University of Geneva that showed that NGOs use this right carefully and only when they have good reason to believe that the law is not being respected. NGOs win more than 60% of the cases they mount, proving that NGOs’ role is essential in ensuring that the legal framework is effectively implemented.

In the November referendum, a two-thirds majority of the Swiss population voted in favor of maintaining the NGOs’ right to use the courts, and the proposal was dropped. This was a clear expression of the Swiss people’s support and encouragement for groups like FoE Switzerland, and an expression of their enduring attachment to both democracy and their nature heritage.

what next?

The referendum result is a clear public endorsement of FoE Switzerland’s watchdog role. FoE Switzerland’s local groups felt particularly encouraged and motivated to continue their work safeguarding nature from the vested interests that threaten it.

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