All children have the right to a clean and healthy environment, a UN committee said for the first time on Monday, at a time when young people are multiplying climate trials.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, made up of 18 independent experts, has published an analysis of an important international treaty, saying it guarantees children the right to a healthy environment. This means, he decrypts, that countries have an obligation to fight against problems such as pollution and climate change. “States must ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of children”the committee said. “Environmental degradation, including the consequences of the climate crisis, undermines the enjoyment of these rights.”
Juvenile lawsuits against their government
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which UN experts have analysed, is the most widely ratified human rights instrument in history, according to the committee’s website. Their advice comes just two weeks after a Montana judge ruled in favor of young people who accused their state of violating their constitutional right to a “clean and healthy environment” by favoring the fossil fuel industry, a historic decision in the first major climate trial of its kind in the United States.
Elsewhere in the world, justice has notably ruled in favor of young people in Colombia who had attacked their government to denounce deforestation, or in Central Europe where children obtained a strengthening of the law on CO2 emissions.
States urged to act against the triple planetary crisis
The analysis of the treaty just published by the committee can be a powerful tool for young people seeking climate justice, its president, Ann Skelton, told AFP, stressing its legal importance. “Children themselves can use this tool to encourage states to do the right thing and ultimately hold them to account in the courts”did she say.
The 1989 Convention does not explicitly state the right of children to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but the committee considers this right to be implicit and directly linked to many other rights, such as the right to life, survival and development. According to the UN committee, “The scope and scale of the triple planetary crisis – namely the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution – pose an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally”.
Ensuring children’s voices are heard
The experts published their findings after consulting governments, civil society and children. More than 16,000 of them provided feedback in 121 countries. “Our voices matter and they deserve to be heard”, said a 17-year-old Indian activist, Kartik, quoted in the UN committee statement. He considers that these guidelines “will help us understand and exercise our rights in the face of the environmental and climate crisis”.
Ms Skelton stressed the importance of children’s right to protest against practices harmful to the environment. Furthermore, she said, “States must ensure that children’s voices are heard when big decisions are made”adding that countries should also “ensure companies follow suit”.
The UN committee has no power of constraint, but the countries undertake in principle to respect the recommendations.