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UN Committee Affirms Children’s Right to Healthy Environment in Landmark Decision

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For the first time in history, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has unambiguously affirmed children’s entitlement to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. This landmark declaration provides a comprehensive interpretation of the obligations that Member States must uphold under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.


The Convention, established in 1989 and ratified by 196 nations, delineates fundamental rights for all children, including the rights to life, survival, development, and health. To offer legal direction regarding these rights within specific contexts, the Committee issues General Comments. The recently published “General Comment No. 26 on Children’s Rights and the Environment with a Special Focus on climate change” specifically addresses the pressing issues of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, and widespread pollution. In this commentary, strategies are outlined to shield children’s lives and prospects from harm. Philip Jaffé, a distinguished member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, emphasizes:


“Children across the globe have emerged as leaders in the battle against climate change, urging their governments and corporations to take definitive action in safeguarding the planet and their own future. Through General Comment No. 26, the Committee on the Rights of the Child not only amplifies the voices of these children but also rigorously defines the rights that pertain to children in the context of their environment—rights that States Parties must collectively and urgently uphold.”


David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, remarks, “This newly issued General Comment represents a pivotal stride in acknowledging that each child on this planet possesses the right to reside in an environment that is clean, wholesome, and sustainable. Governments are now tasked with immediate action to address the global environmental crisis, thus breathing life into these inspiring words.”


General Comment No. 26 elaborates on the fact that States are accountable not only for shielding children from imminent harm but also for preventing predictable infringements of their rights due to present actions—or lack thereof. Furthermore, it underscores that States can be held answerable not solely for environmental harm occurring within their borders but also for the detrimental consequences of ecological degradation and climate change beyond their jurisdiction. Special attention must be devoted to the disproportionate harm suffered by children in vulnerable circumstances.


Urgent action is enjoined upon the 196 States that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These actions encompass initiatives like phasing out coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources, enhancing air quality, ensuring access to unpolluted water, transitioning industrial agriculture and fisheries to produce sustainable and healthful food, and safeguarding biodiversity.


The guidance stipulates that children’s perspectives must be taken into account when making environmental decisions and underscores the critical role of environmental education in equipping children to take action, advocate, and shield themselves from environmental harm. General Comment No. 26 is the outcome of a global and intergenerational collaboration, involving extensive consultation with Member States, international and regional entities—including United Nations bodies and specialized organizations—national human rights institutions, civil society groups, and the children themselves.


Joshua Hofert, the Executive Director of Terre des Hommes Germany, asserts, “Children bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis, yet they bear the brunt of its repercussions: each year, 1.7 million children under five years of age succumb to avoidable environmental damage. Regrettably, children and young people remain underrepresented in virtually all decision-making processes concerning environmental policy. General Comment No. 26 represents our endeavor to rectify this situation: with contributions from over 16,000 children across 121 countries, this has been one of the most inclusive child participation processes at the United Nations level to date. As Terre des Hommes, we take pride in having orchestrated this remarkable General Comment process in collaboration with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.”


Terre des Hommes, the official partner of the Committee in crafting General Comment No. 26, spearheaded a comprehensive effort involving diverse stakeholders. Notably, children were actively engaged through online consultations to shape the content and substance of the commentary. An international Advisory Board of experts and a team of 12 child advisors, aged 11 to 17, lent support to the Committee. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a member of the Advisory Board, contributed technical expertise and facilitated the collection of perspectives from children worldwide as part of the consultation process.


One of the young advisors, Āniva, a 17-year-old advocate for climate and child rights hailing from the Pacific Islands, reflects, “To me, the General Comment signifies a global transformation that is imperative as we confront environmental challenges and take united global action to safeguard our planet for present and future generations. It furnishes children with a robust foundation in international law to uphold our rights to a Healthy Environment. On a global scale, we are witnessing increased efforts to protect the environment through the prism of Human Rights, and General Comment No. 26 is a pivotal component of this movement.”


General Comment No. 26 assumes a role in interpreting States’ obligations under the Paris Agreement to uphold, foster, and incorporate their child rights commitments while addressing climate change. Additionally, it stipulates that impact assessments on child rights must be conducted for all legislation, policies, projects, regulations, budgets, and other decisions related to the environment. States are obligated to periodically report to the UN Committee on the progress they have made in safeguarding children’s environmental rights.


Paloma Escudero, the UNICEF Special Adviser on Advocacy for Child Rights and Climate Action, underscores, “Climate finance and policy determinations persist in disregarding the needs of children. This must change. The General Comment constitutes an urgent plea for nations to prioritize action in all facets of childhood impacted by climate change, including a child’s entitlement to education, safe water, and a wholesome environment. The climate crisis is intrinsically a child rights crisis. Every government bears the responsibility to safeguard the rights of every child across the globe, particularly those boys and girls residing in nations that have contributed the least to this predicament yet endure the most perilous floods, droughts, storms, and heat.”

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