Strategic Litigation

Defending human rights in court

Human rights are set out and protected in law, but courts are not always a rights-friendly venue. While real victories have been won in court, in many instances costly delays, obstructive procedural rules, legal chicanery, unsympathetic judges, and compromised judiciaries can mean that even the most compelling cases of injustice are dismissed. This section explores what might be gained—and lost—by litigating rights, beyond the success or failure of an individual case. When and how can justice be sought through the courts?

 

Who will defend the defenders in Turkey?

By: Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Español | Türkçe

In today’s Turkey, lawyers themselves are being targeted—just for practicing their profession in accordance with the law.

Moving beyond allyship with Indigenous communities to defend the environment

By: Wyatt Gjullin
Español | Português

For environmental and human rights defenders in support of indigenous communities, one of the paths forward is through legal arguments.

The limits and the promise of trans rights as human rights claims

By: Avery R. Everhart
Español

How can human rights push back against regressive global trends in trans rights and sexual and reproductive rights?

Will climate change litigation save the Brazilian Amazon?

By: Caio Borges
Español | Português

A new generation of climate cases being brought before Brazilian courts is addressing climate change more directly in an effort to save the Amazon.

Courts in Pakistan are facilitating climate dialogue between state and citizens

By: Waqqas Mir
Español

There is inherent value in superior courts acting as a platform that facilitates dialogue between the state and citizens. But how far should courts go in their ...

The quest for butterfly climate judging 

By: Catalina Vallejo & Siri Gloppen
Español

With climate litigation, seemingly minor interventions in the legal realm can have a butterfly effect and generate major social and cultural transformations.

Fossil fuel producers and the climate: responsibilities and opportunities

By: Richard Heede
العربية | Español

We can trace the majority of climate-altering emissions to individual fossil fuel companies that have the skills, resources, and moral obligation to help fix the ...

Climate litigation against “Carbon Majors”: economic impacts

By: Joana Setzer
Español

Is climate litigation against so-called “Carbon Majors” capable of changing behaviour and guiding climate change-responsive adjudication in the long term?

Toppling modern-day Goliaths in the fight against climate polluters

By: Hasminah Dimaporo Paudac
Español

In climate litigation in the Philippines against 47 large corporations, a Greenpeace legal team showed that big polluters can be held morally and legally responsible ...

Litigation in Ireland’s Supreme Court may condemn inaction on climate change

By: Victoria Adelmant & Philip Alston & Matthew Blainey
Español

Public support in Ireland for taking action against climate change is high, but the government has not adequately mitigated its impact—a recent Supreme Court case ...

Unprecedented ruling for Indigenous peoples by Inter-American Court of Human Rights

By: Matías Duarte & Diego Morales & Erika Schmidhuber Peña
Español

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has set a precedent with its decision to grant territorial and ancestral rights to Indigenous peoples in Argentina—how ...

Why ideas and identity matter in climate change litigation

By: Lisa Vanhala
Español

Existing research on climate change litigation ignores questions about who is mobilizing the law to address the climate crisis. But who isn’t turning to the courts ...

Climate litigation through an equality lens

By: James A. Goldston
Español

Applying an equality lens to climate litigation is not just the right thing to do; it’s also more effective.

Climate science in rights-based advocacy contexts

By: Michael Burger & Jessica Wentz & Daniel Metzger
Español

The science showing causal links between climate change, country emissions, and individual harms is a critical component in human rights litigation on climate change.

Litigation to challenge large extractive projects is gaining traction in Africa

By: Pooven Moodley
Español

Communities in Africa are increasingly using litigation to challenge large extractive projects that exacerbate the climate emergency and loss of biodiversity.

Are matters of national survival related to climate change really beyond a court’s power?

By: Sophie Marjanac & Sam Hunter Jones
Español

Courts can adjudicate the effectiveness of emissions reduction policies in protecting fundamental rights without encroaching on the powers of the political branches ...

The farmer or the hero litigator? Modes of climate litigation in the global South

By: Jolene Lin & Jacqueline Peel
Español

Climate litigation shows that the global South experience is a rich and powerful one that offers many opportunities for multi-directional learning.

Judges within their powers: determining the lower limit for countries’ climate action

By: Dennis van Berkel
Español

Are courts able to determine that a government’s climate change policy is insufficient and order governments to do more?

Thinking strategically about climate litigation

By: Ben Batros & Tessa Khan
Español

Climate litigators can learn from human rights actors on how and when to use litigation strategically to create systemic change.

The promises and challenges of climate change litigation in India

By: Arpitha Kodiveri
Español

As India surges forward with an aggressive development agenda, the judiciary’s involvement in climate change litigation is viewed by many as an obstacle to speedy ...

Climate litigation and human rights: averting the next global crisis

By: César Rodríguez-Garavito
Español

OGR's newest series explores a rising wave of lawsuits that is laying bare the profound impacts that a warming planet has on basic human rights and future generations.

Using legal empowerment to fight exploitative land investors in Sierra Leone

By: Hassan Sesay & Daniel Sesay
Español | Français

Legal empowerment helps locals to understand and claim their rights, resulting in a legal victory for communities in Sierra Leone against exploitative corporations.

Fighting for rights in the streets—not just the courts—of Hong Kong

By: Katrin Kinzelbach & Eva Pils
Español | 简体中文

The Hong Kong protest movement has long given up hope that Hong Kong’s rule of law can be protected with judicial means only.

Economic and social rights force us to pressure a return to the state

By: Katharine G. Young
Español | Français

Constitutional entrenchment is only part of the battle for recognition of economic and social rights, as many South African cases have made clear.

Polish activists fight for rights already guaranteed in their constitution

By: Małgorzata Szuleka
Español

The democratic community in Poland is under threat, but activists and judges who use the constitution to push back against the government and fight for human rights ...

Engaging justice amidst inequality in Latin America

By: Lisa Hilbink & Janice Gallagher & Juliana Restrepo Sanin & Valentina Salas
Español | Português

Despite low levels of trust in the justice system, citizens in Chile and Colombia still make legal claims, but marginalized groups opt for informal strategies over ...

Strategic litigation in a perfect storm—South Africa

By: Jason Brickhill
Español | isiXhosa

The courts have done much in South Africa to advance human rights and promote equality, but in what remains a grossly unequal society they can only do so much.

Litigating rights under occupation

By: Jessica Montell
Español | עברית | العربية

Israeli occupation is the root cause of Palestinian suffering. Litigation won’t change that, but it has nevertheless proven a successful tactic to defend Palestinian ...

Landmark case from Romania expands possibilities for LGBT rights

By: Adrian Coman
Español

A landmark case on same-sex marriage in Romania could expand the possibilities for LGBT rights in the region.

Seizing opportunities and broad strategy both essential in human rights litigation

By: Wolfgang Kaleck
Español | Deutsch

To bring real human rights change, legal actions usually need to be linked to broader political strategies, but that doesn’t preclude seizing opportunities as they ...

Human rights—tackling inequality by catalyzing the agents of social change

By: Jackie Dugard
Español | Français

Some argue human rights are insufficient to tackle inequality but overlook the emancipatory power of rights—to create the space to mobilize for change, a dynamic ...

Turning to the courts: lessons from Amnesty Canada’s litigation experience

By: Alex Neve
Español | Français

When human rights NGOs go to court, there are many key factors to consider beyond just “winning”.

Litigating rights carries risks as well as rewards

By: Martín Abregú
Español

Where possible, challenging authoritarian and illiberal regimes in court is an important tactic, but it should be done with full consideration to the potential ...

Caliban Unleashed: What role for strategic litigation in an illiberal era?

By: Alicia Ely Yamin
Español

There are inherent limitations in litigating health rights, but it has led to important victories, and must remain a key strategy as populism surges.

India’s Supreme Court is making landmark judgements in social change

By: Jayna Kothari
Español

In the last few years, public interest litigation at India’s Supreme Court has brought significant wins for human rights—but success is best assured when litigation ...

Strategic human rights litigation in tough times

By: Dimitrina Petrova
Español | Русский | 简体中文

There are many good reasons to pursue human rights claims in the courts, especially given the rise of illiberal regimes; not least, it is simply the right thing ...

The value of strategic litigation amidst rising illiberal democracies

By: James A. Goldston
Español | Français | العربية

In an increasingly authoritarian world, courts are among the few spaces where ordinary people can challenge power, voice dissent, and apply independent scrutiny.

Court judgements are shaking political foundations—and upholding rights

By: James A. Goldston
Español

In Kenya, Guatemala and Brazil, courts have defied presidents and shaken up politics—is court-centric advocacy one of the few remaining avenues to legitimately ...

Closing the doors of justice? The South African Constitutional Court’s approach to direct access

By: Jackie Dugard
Español

Legal interventions can help improve poverty and inequality, but in South Africa the poor don’t have sufficient access to courts.

Legal mobilization: a critical first step to addressing economic and social rights

By: Shareen Hertel

Legal mobilization for economic and social rights is a critical first step, not the end goal, as India's Right to Food campaign demonstrates.

Can legal interventions really tackle the root causes of poverty?

By: Sara Bailey

Legal interventions can ameliorate some of poverty’s most harmful consequences, but they cannot address poverty’s root causes. This can only be done through major ...

Poverty and human rights: can courts, lawyers and activists make a difference?

By: Chris Jochnick
Français

We have long known that poverty is rooted in power, yet traditional power-blind approaches to poverty remain predominant. Can a human rights lens and the traditional ...

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