An island demands justice

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, destroying the livelihoods of the people on the Indonesian island Pari. The Swiss cement company Holcim bears a significant amount of responsibility for this be- cause of its tremendously high CO2 emissions. Four residents are now demanding justice on behalf of the island and have taken legal action against Holcim in Switzerland. With the support of Swiss Church Aid HEKS/EPER, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Indonesian envi ronmental organization WALHI, they are demanding that Holcim immediately and significantly reduce its CO2 emissions, pay compensation for damages already incurred and co-finance urgently needed flood protection measures. This is the first time that a Swiss company will be held legally accountable for its role in climate change. 

The climate crisis is causing damage all over the world, resulting in human rights violations and the destruc- tion of livelihoods – especially in the Global South where people have scarcely contributed to the crisis, like those on the Indonesian island Pari. Rising sea levels have led to increased flooding and extensive damage to houses, streets and businesses on the island. Without rapid reductions in global CO2 emissions, large por- tions of the island will likely be submerged under water in 30 years. 

The people on Pari must now pay for the measures to protect the island themselves – even though they have hardly contributed to climate change. “This is unjust,” said the fisherman Edi Mulyono, one of the four plain- tiffs, at a press conference in Bern on Tuesday. Furthermore, island residents are already suffering concrete losses. “Because of the flooding, fewer guests are coming, our income is dropping,” stated Asmania, who owns a guesthouse on Pari. 

“Call for Climate Justice” 

With their application for conciliation submitted on Monday in Zug (Switzerland), the four plaintiffs seek to hold Holcim accountable. They are therefore demanding proportional compensation for damages already caused by climate change, as well as the co-financing of necessary flood protection measures. Above all, however, they are demanding a rapid reduction in the company’s excessive CO2 emissions – so that less damage will occur in the future. The three organizations are supporting these demands with the ”Call for Climate Justice” campaign. 

Holcim is globally the leading manufacturer of cement, the basic material for concrete, and one of the 50 big- gest CO2 emitters out of all companies worldwide. The production of cement releases enormous quantities of CO2. A new study shows that the Swiss company emitted more than seven billion tons of CO2 from 1950 to 2021. That amounts to 0.42 percent of all global industrial CO2 emissions since the year 1750 – or more than twice as much generated by the entire country of Switzerland during the same period. “Holcim thus bears a significant share of the responsibility for the climate crisis,” said Yvan Maillard Ardenti, climate expert at HEKS, “as well as for the situation on the island Pari.” 

“Groundbreaking” case 

The submission of the application for conciliation by the affected parties from Indonesia marks the first for- mal civil proceedings in Switzerland against a company for its contribution to climate change. In the applica- tion, the affected parties are invoking their human rights and are claiming that their personal rights have been violated. “If a company has caused damage, it should be held responsible for it,” claimed Nina Burri, expert on business and human rights at HEKS. But, ultimately this is about “global justice.” 

The case against Holcim is part of a worldwide movement. “In many places in Europe, people are taking legal action against states and companies in order to compel them to protect the climate,” explained Miriam Saage- Maaß, Legal Director at ECCHR. The case against Holcim is however only the second worldwide to be initiat- ed by affected parties from the Global South. Moreover, it calls for Holcim not only to assume historical re- sponsibility, but also future responsibility with the demand for it to rapidly reduce emissions. “The case com- bines two different approaches,” says Saage-Maaß, “and is therefore groundbreaking.”