Protecting children & youth rights in the environmental crisis

Author: Emma Pagliarusco

”Environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy human rights” (Res.48/13 on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment).

Following our December article on the recognition of the right to a healthy environment by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), this article explores the importance of protecting children and youth rights as rights-holders and stakeholders in the context of environmental-related disasters. Furthermore, we recall the urgency of mainstreaming youth participation in environmental decision-making as necessary to implement such protection.

Children and youth rights to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment: human rights framework

The impacts of the climate crisis on children’s rights

Global institutional concerns about the impacts of climate change and environmental-related disasters on the most vulnerable groups were the basis of the adoption of Resolution 48/13 (UNHRC, October 2021) which recognizes the right to a healthy environment. Among these, several studies and reports from the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have highlighted the disproportionate impacts of climate change on children. By stating that “climate change is a child rights crisis”, UNICEF estimated that nearly half of the world’s children (one billion) live in countries that are at an ‘extremely high-risk’ from the impacts of climate change. This is of utmost danger for the life of present and future generations, as climate change negatively affects children’s physiological and emotional development, health and well-being. Indeed, among others, children are much more exposed to water-borne diseases (such as malaria, dengue and cholera) and suffer more from food and water scarcity than adults due to physiological characteristics. Moreover, it has been estimated that approximately 600,000 children under the age of 5 die every year because of air pollution, UNICEF reported in 2019.

Therefore, it is commonly acknowledged that several children’s (and youth) rights are compromised by environmental degradation and climate disasters, among which:

  • the right to life,
  • the right to play,
  • the right to culture,
  • the right to meaningful and informed participation,
  • indigenous peoples’ rights,
  • the right to development.

Many of these rights form the basic framework of international protection of children, yet they are also extremely affected by climate change and environmental disasters, as recognized by the UN in the Resolutions (below).

International human rights instruments for the protection of children and youth

Generally, the main instruments for the protection of the rights of the child, the “basics” of the protection of children at the UN level, which at the same time appear threatened by climate change, are the following:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: its art.25(2) recognizes the special care and assistance required by children in a social context;
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, protecting, among others, children’s best interest (art.3); their right to survive (art.6); their right to express their views on matters that affect them (art.12); their freedom of expression (art.13); and their right to the best possible health and healthcare (art.24).

UNHRC resolutions linking the rights of children to the environment and climate change

In addition, the UNHRC has issued a number of resolutions interlinking the rights of children and youth with climate change and environmental harm. Resolutions, although not binding, are a formal expression of the opinion or the will of UN organs. In practice, they provoke debates among states, civil society, and intergovernmental organizations (the UNHRC, “A Practical Guide”). They are useful instruments for youth advocacy since they mainstream discussion and open up more possibilities for youth groups to make their voice heard in multi-stakeholder discussions and events.

The resolutions relevant for the discussion linking children and youth rights with the environment are:

The Joint Commitment

To “further support the leadership and empowerment of children and youth in environmental action and fulfilling their human rights concerning the environment”, in June 2021, several UN entities came together in a ‘political’ (thus non-binding) Joint Commitment to enhance their commitment to protecting youth and children rights.

The Joint Commitment expresses awareness from UN institutions that, in relation to environmental action, children and youth have “the right to freedom of expression, access to information, education, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, to be heard, to be consulted on issues affecting them, to have their views given due weight, and to have access to an effective remedy, including through child- and youth-friendly and sensitive mechanisms”.

The Commitment acknowledges the need to empower children and young people to enable the enjoyment of the right to live in a healthy environment. It contains commitments to:

  • Support states’ legislative frameworks in soundly recognising the right to a safe, healthy environment;
  • Uphold, respect, protect and fulfill all human rights, including the rights of children and youth with respect to the environment and climate justice;
  • Partner systematically and meaningfully with children and youth groups at local, national, regional, and global levels;
  • Promote children- and youth-inclusive research, data collection, analysis, and accountability that can form the basis of sound decision-making.

In order to achieve the above-mentioned objectives, however, the human rights law framework cannot work alone: the interlink with international environmental law is necessary, considering the environmental-related causes of human rights violations.

Protecting children and youth rights within environmental law fora: the need for systemic youth participation

As the threat to the enjoyment of children and youth rights regarding the climate crisis requires sudden action, engaging young people in the discussion is one of the first steps to take to ensure that climate policies and laws do not undermine our future.

Where do we stand now?

Globally, children and youth are not only right-holders but main stakeholders in environmental decision-making. Among others, they are identified as one of the nine major groups of civil society in Agenda 21, with the right and responsibility to participate in sustainable development.  Nonetheless, they still encounter barriers and multiple forms of discrimination when it comes to participation in environmental public affairs: most of the time the voice of youth is taken into consideration on an irregular basis and the outcomes of discussions remain intangible.

Even though better youth participation and access to information alone do not solve the problem of systemic political disregard for the health and future of children and youth, they have to be enhanced on a regular basis as they strengthen the implementation of human rights protection.

Currently, the international environmental law framework recognizes the importance of engaging children and youth within, for example, art.6 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Art.6 calls on governments to implement educational and training programmes on climate change to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders (which should include youth). Moreover, the Lima Ministerial Declaration on Education and Awareness-raising reaffirmed that youth is one of the key stakeholders to participate and access information and knowledge supporting climate policymaking (decision 19/CP.20).

The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) is contributing to the discussion in the UN institutional framework and it recognizes that human rights appear to be still disconnected from environmental protection. For instance, its  Montevideo Environmental Law Programme initiative incentivises discussions among UN institutions, civil society, and academic experts on the need to strengthen environmental law.

Within this latter, the contribution youth can give is to engage in discussion on how to:

  • Enhance the understanding of the links between the rights of children, youth and future generations and environmental law;
  • Enhance the understanding of the role of youth in decision-making and on how to promote participatory rights;
  • Ensure the promotion, protection and respect of youth and children’s rights in environmental protection (and vice versa).

The role of UNICEF: advising on making climate policies child- and youth-sensitive

An example of how to promote, protect and respect youth and children’s rights in environmental protection is UNICEF’s work in advising on how to make climate policies more child and youth sensitive.

A UNICEF report from 2019 shows that there are still many important gaps in the recognition of children and youth within climate policies, resulting in a system failing to address child and youth rights properly. According to the report, climate policies have to be more “child and youth sensitive”, meaning that in order to consider children and youth interests, they have to be:

  • Ambitious and urgent: they must include ambitious mitigation and adaptation measures to protect the rights and best interests of children and young people from the impacts of climate change;
  • Rights-based: they must explicitly and meaningfully refer to children and young people as not only rights-holders, but as important stakeholders;
  • Holistic and multi-sectoral: they must consider that the impacts of climate change on children and young people have to be addressed holistically throughout all policy sectors involved;
  • Inclusive: all children and young people must be systematically and meaningfully consulted and given the possibility to participate in climate policy-making processes (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017).

The work of UNICEF and UNEP, despite addressing the problem from two different starting points, both result in calling for enhanced youth participation within the context of climate change policy-making and decision-making: human rights and environmental law systems are thus to be conceived complementary, and the right to a healthy environment being an example of this interlink.

Conclusion: what youth and children can do?

In order to implement the right to a healthy environment with an eye to youth and children, it is necessary to strengthen the interlink between human rights and environmental law and to make youth participation in environmental decision-making a “permanent capacity”.

In this regard, youth-led civil society organizations are strongly advocating and raising awareness at the international and national institutional levels to enhance the inclusion of children and young people at the decision-making level

However, from the individual side, how can we make our voice heard when it comes to environmental policy- and decision-making?

If you do not know where to start, and if the above-mentioned framework seems too theoretical and far away from you, here there are some suggestions on how to promote your right to a clean and sustainable future starting from zero:

  • Learn

    Learn and enhance your knowledge of the main actors and processes of environmental decision making. Find out which are the environmental leaders, civil society organizations and initiatives which influence your future. Think in a holistic and inclusive perspective: which decisions or policies in your country endanger your future and one of your peers?
    One starting point could be first to increase your knowledge of international environmental law, public participation opportunities and climate litigation, in order to think in a concrete way: in this regard, we recommend attending our series of workshops taking place in June and July which fit exactly this purpose. We want to make sure that you know about the legal processes behind climate cases, in order for you to build capacity and gain confidence. More info will be shared on our website. Besides, collaborative learning opportunities and knowledge sharing not only increase our expertise and give us hope but contribute to building a network of people sharing, supporting and strengthening the same cause.

  • Advocate

    Advocate and spread the word: try to engage as many other people as possible, sharing what you discovered and learned. Use social media to denounce violations of your rights of living in a clean environment, join campaigns and encourage public debates.

  • Get involved

    Get involved in youth-led organizations that promote environmental protection, in your local area or globally. You will find out that many people care as much as you and collect their efforts for many environmental-related causes. Among these, Generation Climate Europe, Global Youth Biodiversity Network and many of our YEE members working at the national level are only some suggestions to start.

  • Enjoy nature

    Last but not least, enjoy nature: appreciate the unique value of different ecosystems and the benefits a healthy environment has on our physical and emotional conditions.

These are some of the inputs we can give you to support your concerns and to make you feel that even if participating in environmental law decision-making seems to be so distant from your everyday life, it is the starting point for protecting our future.