Youth climate activists inspire UN committee to declare child climate rights

Young climate activists hold up placards in a crowd that state: skolstrejk for klimatet (school strike for climate).
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Young people have been leading the way in the fight against climate breakdown – and now, a United Nations committee has recognised their unique rights in the face of the climate crisis and environmental degradation.

On Monday 28 August, a key UN rights committee determined that all children are entitled to a clean and healthy environment. Crucially, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said that this means countries are obliged to combat things like pollution and the climate crisis. Its fresh guidance bolsters young people’s arguments for suing authorities over the ravages of climate breakdown.

The UN committee monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. During the meeting, the panel’s 18 independent experts provided a new interpretation of the treaty, which counts nearly all the world’s countries as parties:

States must ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights

Moreover, it concluded that:

Environmental degradation, including the consequences of the climate crisis, adversely affects the enjoyment of these rights.

Childrens’ voices must be brought to the table

To reach its conclusions, the panel said it had consulted with governments, civil society, and especially children. More than 16,000 children of all ages across 121 countries provided comments to the committee. In their submissions, they described the negative effects of environmental degradation and the climate crisis on their lives and communities.

Read on...

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17-year old Kartik, a committee advisor and child rights activist from India, said that:

Children are architects, leaders, thinkers and changemakers of today’s world. Our voices matter, and they deserve to be listened to.

Kartik argued that the new committee guidance will:

help us understand and exercise our rights in the face of the environmental and climate crisis

The 1989 convention does not explicitly spell out the rights of children to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. However, the committee argued the right was implicit. It linked these rights to a long line of guaranteed rights, including the right to life, survival, and development. The committee’s general comment stated that:

The extent and magnitude of the triple planetary crisis, comprising the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution, is an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally

The committee’s findings are therefore far-reaching. In particular, the new guidance determined that the convention prohibits states from causing environmental harms that violate children’s rights.

The chair of the committee, Ann Skelton, said that:

States must ensure that children’s voices are brought to the table when big decisions are being made

In addition, she added that countries also needed to “make sure that businesses are toeing the line”.

Young people leading the way

Chair Ann Skelton said the committee had been inspired by children stepping up and:

taking on the obligation to protect the environment, for themselves, but also for future generations.

In 2019, Greta Thunberg and 15 other young climate activists also brought a case to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child itself. The 16 plaintiffs – aged between 8 and 17 – joined together from multiple nations. This included Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Marshall Islands, Nigeria, Palau, South Africa, Sweden, Tunisia, and the United States. The petitioners alleged that their member states had failed to tackle the climate crisis, and that this was a violation of their rights as children.

In 2021, the committee decided that it was unable to rule on the case. Specifically, it determined that the child plaintiffs should have brought their case to national courts first. However, it did crucially resolve that countries bear cross-border responsibility for the harmful impact of climate change.

Skelton said that the new analysis could provide a new and powerful tool for young people seeking to bring such cases against their governments:

Children themselves can use this instrument to encourage states to do the right thing, and ultimately to help to hold them accountable

As a result, she argued that the new guidance “is of great and far-reaching legal significance”.

Youth climate litigation

Youth climate activists have been increasingly turning to climate litigation. In July, the UN and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law released a climate litigation report. It found that globally, the cumulative number of climate cases is two-and-a-half-times higher than in 2017.

Significantly, it identified that by 31 December 2022, youth plaintiffs – or those acting on their behalf – had brought 34 climate cases concerning their human rights.

Notably, the UN committee’s fresh analysis comes just weeks after a landmark court ruling in Montana. As the Canary previously reported, the Montanan court ruled in favour of a group of youths who accused the western US state of breaching their rights to a clean environment.

In particular, the ruling found that a fossil fuel-friendly state law had violated those rights. Specifically, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Limitation prevents the state from considering greenhouse gas impacts when issuing fossil fuel development permits.

The Montana case followed several other recent high-profile lawsuits. For example, a group of young people won a case in 2018 against the Colombian government over deforestation. Meanwhile, a German constitutional court found against the government for failing to protect the youth plaintiffs’ “natural foundations of life”.

From the over-1-million-strong global school climate strikes to the youth climate activists taking legal action, young people are spearheading the charge against the climate crisis. The UN’s new guidance sends a clear message to world governments: in failing to meet international climate obligations, these states are violating the rights of their young citizens. As a result, young people will now have an even stronger grounding to fight back.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.

Feature image via Derek Read/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0



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