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UN Strengthens Children’s Rights To Fight Climate Change In Court

Above Photo: A boy stands near his home which his family had to abandon due to sea level rise on Mousuni Island in West Bengal, India. Arka Dutta / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images.

The United Nations Child Rights Committee has published new guidance on the rights of children in relation to the environment with a particular emphasis on climate change.

The UN’s direction on the matter sets forth specific administrative measures nation-states should implement in order to tackle how climate change and humans’ degradation of the environment are affecting children’s rights of enjoyment, as well as to ensure a clean and sustainable planet for current and future generations, a press release from the UN said.

The UN Committee adopted its guidance, officially General Comment No. 26, following consultation with national human rights institutions, nations, international organizations, experts, civil society and children. Children from 121 countries contributed 16,331 comments to the discussion.

“Children are architects, leaders, thinkers and changemakers of today’s world. Our voices matter, and they deserve to be listened to,” said 17-year-old Kartik, an Indian child rights activist who is one of the child advisers of the committee, in the press release. “General Comment No. 26 is the instrument that will help us understand and exercise our rights in the face of environmental and climate crises.”

The general comment provides clarification on how the rights of children apply to environmental protection, as well as emphasizes children’s right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment. This right is directly linked to the rights of survival, life and development, education, the highest attainable health standard and an adequate standard of living.

“This general comment is of great and far-reaching legal significance,” said Committee Chair Ann Skelton in the press release. “[I]t details States’ obligations under the Child Rights Convention to address environmental harms and guarantee that children are able to exercise their rights. This encompasses their rights to information, participation, and access to justice to ensure that they will be protected from and receive remedies for the harms caused by environmental degradation and climate change.”

The general comment goes on to declare that countries shall give children protection against the environmental damage caused by commercial activities. It says nations have an obligation to “provide legislative, regulative and enforcement frameworks to ensure that businesses respect children’s rights, and should require businesses to undertake due diligence regarding children’s rights and the environment,” the UN press release said.

General Comment No. 26 also says that, when children have been identified as victims, immediate steps should be taken in order to prevent further harm and to repair the damage.

It has been observed by the committee that, due to their status, children face barriers in the attainment of legal standing in many countries, which limit their ability to assert their rights as relates to the environment.

“States should therefore provide pathways for children to access justice for violations of their rights relating to environmental harm, including through complaints mechanisms that are child-friendly, gender-responsive and disability-inclusive. In addition, mechanisms should be available for claims of imminent or foreseeable harms and past or current violations of children’s rights,” the press release said.

The UN’s guidance highlights the requirement of countries to “take all necessary measures” to protect children’s rights as relates to climate change that is the result of businesses, such as making sure businesses quickly reduce their fossil fuel emissions.

The guidance also underscores the dire need for the climate finance gap to be addressed by developed countries, including by offering grants instead of loans to developing countries, so that negative impacts on children’s rights may be avoided.

“[C]limate finance is overly slanted toward mitigation at the cost of adaptation and loss and damage measures, which has discriminatory effects on children who live in areas where more adaptation measures are needed,” the UN press release said. “The Committee urges immediate collective States actions to tackle environmental harm and climate change.”

Not everyone thought the committee had gone far enough, however.

“I think this was such a missed opportunity – it’s an exercise in incrementalism instead of taking quantum leap forward,” said Kelly Matheson, Global Climate Litigation deputy director at Our Children’s Trust, which represented the youths who recently won in a climate trial against the State of Montana, as Reuters reported.

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