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‘The climate crisis is a child rights crisis’

States must safeguard children’s rights from climate change and environmental damage
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A cute African boy leaning on his elbows and smiling at the camera.

For the first time, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has explicitly affirmed the children’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, issuing a comprehensive interpretation of Member States’ obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This Convention, created in 1989 and ratified by 196 states, outlines universal children’s rights such as the right to life, survival and development, and the right to health.

A General Comment provides legal guidance on what these rights imply for a specific topic or area of legislation. The now published ‘General Comment No. 26 on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change’ explicitly addresses the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution, outlining countermeasures to protect the lives and life perspectives of children.

‘Children worldwide have been leading the fight against climate change; calling on their governments and corporations to take action to protect the planet and their future. With its General Comment No. 26, the Committee on the Rights of the Child not only echoes and amplifies children’s voices, but also clearly defines the rights of children in relation to the environment that States Parties should respect, protect and fulfil… collectively and urgently!’

Member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child

Act today to protect children

General Comment No. 26 specifies that States are responsible not only for protecting children’s rights from immediate harm, but also for foreseeable violations of their rights in the future due to States’ acts — or failure to act — today.

Furthermore, it underlines that States can be held accountable not only for environmental harm occurring within their borders, but also for the harmful impacts of environmental damage and climate change beyond their borders.

Particular attention is to be paid to disproportionate harm faced by children in disadvantaged situations.

‘Children are among those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental damage worldwide, yet they are the least responsible for this global crisis, which is now threatening their rights.

‘The UN Committee’s new guidance underscores that children have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as a right to life, survival and development, the highest attainable standard of health, an adequate standard of living, and education.

‘This is a legally significant guidance that lays out the obligation for countries to act under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure the rights of children, including Indigenous children, are protected from environmental degradation and climate change, and that they receive remedies for harms already caused.

‘It also reinforces the requirement on states to take all necessary measures to protect children’s rights from the harms caused by the emissions or other activities of businesses.

‘Children often struggle to make their voices heard. Their participation in the UN Committee’s guidance underscores the importance of children’s activism to protect the environment and the obligation for states to respect and protect children’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

‘Amnesty International agrees with the UN Committee’s conclusion that there is an urgent and collective need for higher-income countries, which have historically been the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to meet climate finance commitments to avoid further negative impacts on children’s rights in lower income states and elsewhere.’

Amnesty International’s climate advisor

Act on air quality

The 196 States that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child are urged to take immediate action including organising the phase out of coal, oil and natural gas and shifting to renewable energy sources, improving air quality and ensuring access to clean water, transforming industrial agriculture and fisheries to produce healthy and sustainable food, and protecting biodiversity.

The guidance states that children’s views must be considered in environmental decision-making and stresses the critical role of environmental education in preparing children to take action, advocate and protect themselves from environmental harm.

General Comment No. 26 itself is the outcome of global and intergenerational engagement, including broad consultation with Member States, international and regional organisations, such as United Nations entities and specialised bodies, national human rights institutions, civil society organisations and children themselves.

‘This new General Comment marks a vital step forward in the recognition that every child on Earth has the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Governments must now take urgent action to address the global environmental crisis in order to breathe life into these inspiring words.’

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

Inclusive child participation

Terre des Hommes — the Committee’s official partner for the development of General Comment No. 26 — led a process with multi-level stakeholders, significantly involving and engaging children through online consultations to inform the shape and substance of the text.

The international child rights organisation coordinated a global Advisory Board of experts and a team of 12 child advisors aged 11-17 to support the Committee.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as a member of the Advisory Board, provided further technical expertise and helped collect views from children around the world as part of the consultation process.

One of the child advisors, Āniva, a 17-year-old climate and child rights activist from the Pacific Islands, comments: ‘To me, the General Comment means worldwide change that is necessary as we move forward in fighting environmental issues and take global action in protecting our planet for our generation and the generations to come. It gives children a stronger basis in international law to enforce our Rights to a Healthy Environment. Globally, we are seeing more action for people to protect the environment through Human Rights and GC26 forms an important part of this.’

‘Children are the least responsible for the climate crisis but suffer most from its consequences: every year 1.7 million children under the age of five lose their lives due to avoidable environmental damage. And yet, children and young people are under-represented in virtually all decision-making processes on environmental policy.

‘With General Comment No. 26, we have tried to change this: with more than 16,000 contributions from children across 121 countries, this has been one of the most inclusive child participation processes at UN level to date. As Terre des Hommes, we are proud to have coordinated this extraordinary General Comment process with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.’

Executive director of Terre des Hommes Germany

Child rights impact assessments

General Comment No. 26 assists in interpreting States’ commitment under the Paris Agreement to respect, promote and consider their child rights obligations when taking action to address climate change.

It also makes it clear that child rights impact assessments must be undertaken for all environment-related legislation, policies and projects, regulations, budget or other decisions.

States will have to report periodically to the UN Committee on relevant progress they have made in protecting children’s environmental rights.

‘Climate financing and policy decisions continue to neglect the needs of children. This must change. The General Comment is an urgent call for countries to prioritise action in every aspect of childhood impacted by climate change, such as a child’s right to education, to safe water and a healthy environment.

‘The climate crisis is a child rights crisis. Every government has an obligation to protect the rights of every child in every corner of the planet, especially those boys and girls living in countries that have contributed least to this problem but are enduring the most dangerous floods, droughts, storms and heat.’

UNICEF Special Adviser on Advocacy for Child Rights and Climate Action

The Committee received 16,331 contributions from children in 121 countries. They detailed the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change on their lives and communities and asserted their right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The Committee’s general comment will be presented at a public launch on 18 September in Geneva.

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