Children’s calls for climate justice have been heard, but largely ignored
The world is experiencing an unprecedented mobilization of children acting to demand urgent action to address the ever-escalating climate crisis, which severely affects the lives of children and their future, amongst others. In the wake of the Fridays for Future protests, a global movement initiated in August 2018 when then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began a school strike for climate, everywhere across the globe child human rights defenders (CHRDs) have been mobilizing to call for climate justice, whether they are called Licypriya Kangujam in India, Leah Namugerwa in Uganda or Francisco Vera in Colombia. “Around the world, children and young people are demanding a real change. They are demanding societies where people and the planet come first, demanding action where previous generations have failed” (Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, keynote speaker at 2021 ADRC in March 2021).
So far, however, children’s voices have been largely ignored, as recognized by the Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child at the 76th session of the General Assembly in October 2021: “For years, children have been asking national and world leaders and decision-makers to stop making empty promises and listen to the views and experiences of children when formulating and implementing policies and programmes on the environment and climate change. For years, their voices calling for climate justice have been largely ignored”. This is in large part due to the widespread perception, at all levels, of children as passive subjects to take care of, as opposed to rights-holders and civil society actors. Rebeca, a Child Rights Connect Child Advisor from El Salvador, highlights this challenge as follows: “Children and adolescents face many problems in a world where making ourselves heard brings more difficulties than solutions… We are not always taken seriously or we are not treated with the same respect”. The lack of consideration of environmental CHRDs, and subsequent insufficient action by national and world leaders to address the climate change crisis, also takes root in children’s limited access to decision-making processes at all levels, and their lack of resources, connections, and tools to effectively influence such processes. At an event on child rights mainstreaming co-convened by Child Rights Connect and Amnesty International during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in October 2021, Vinuki, a British CHRDs, explained: “Most child human rights defenders remain unaware of their rights as defenders because there’s not enough child friendly information out there”. Not only have environmental CHRDs’ voices being ignored, but increasingly, their voices are being silenced, including in the most brutal ways (as recently experienced in Colombia where a 11-year-old received threats against his life and a 14 year-old indigenous, environmental activist was murdered). Jorge, a Child Rights Connect Child Advisor from Bolivia, stated during the October event: “Children and adolescents fear to take to the streets to claim for their rights to protest because their rights are violated…They also fear for their safety when talking about what is best for them because they may be subjected to reprisals from the adult population.” While violence against activists, including children, is on the rise, risks faced by CHRDs are often used as an excuse to discourage them from speaking up or to overly focus on their protection at the cost of their empowerment.
“Children and adolescents fear to take to the streets to claim for their rights to protest because their rights are violated…They also fear for their safety when talking about what is best for them because they may be subjected to reprisals from the adult population.” Jorge, Child Advisor from Bolivia
How Child Rights Connect engaged to address these challenges
In line with its Strategic Goal 3 on increased accountability to child rights within the UN (and with some overlap with Strategic Goal 1 on child participation and empowerment), Child Rights Connect has pursued its multi-stakeholders’ initiative to address these challenges.
Resourcing environmental child activists with tools to act
In 2021, Child Rights Connect equipped environmental CHRDs from around the world with new accessible resources, which they can freely, independently and durably access and use. In October 2021, Child Rights Connect launched the child-friendly version of its Implementation Guide on the Rights of CHRDs, in English, French and Spanish. Developed in consultation with Queens’ University Belfast and with Child Rights Connect’s permanent Children’s Advisory Team (CAT), this Guide provides an accessible definition of what human rights are, outlines some of the challenges faced by CHRDs, and provides concrete recommendations for improving the implementation of the rights of CHRDs, including environmental CHRDs. It can be used by children as a tool to teach others about their rights and their actions as defenders and to help adults and decision-makers (including teachers, parents and other carers, and governments) better understand and put into practice the rights of CHRDs. “This document is especially significant for children globally, as it will not only protect children fighting for a brighter future but will also allow them to be encouraged and feel safe in the efforts for peace”, explained Reece, a former CAT member.
The Guide is hosted on Child Rights Connect’s new website on child human rights defenders, also launched in 2021 with the support of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany. This online toolkit raises general awareness and provides technical assistance to both children and adults who strive to advance the rights of CHRDs. In addition to the child-friendly guide, the website includes a video presentation of the toolkit in four languages (English, French, Spanish and Romanian), an explanation of the definition of CHRDs, links to relevant resources as well as a child-friendly learning space where children can become more familiar with their rights as defenders and better understand how to act. The learning space includes multilingual e-learning modules specific for children on the right to defend the environment, CHRDs’ engagement with the reporting cycle of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee), and CHRDs’ engagement with the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, which were developed and tested with a selected group of CHRDs from Morocco, Venezuela and Jamaica. The training module on environmental CHRDs, which was developed in partnership with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), aims to empower environmental CHRDs and ensure the protection of their rights while calling for climate justice, including through a closer collaboration with UNEP and using the international human rights mechanisms
Assisting UNEP with tools to mainstream child rights and child participation
In parallel, Child Rights Connect has continued to support the development of the institutional capacities of UN agencies to mainstream children’s rights and act in a child sensitive and responsive manner, particularly through expanding its collaboration with UNEP. In 2021, Child Rights Connect developed the child-friendly version of UNEP’s draft policy on human rights defenders, and the internal procedure for UNEP staff on a child-focused implementation of the policy. The child-friendly version of the policy will allow children to become aware of this policy and to report violations of their rights. The child-focused internal procedure will empower UNEP staff to respond to allegations of violations reported by children in an appropriate manner. These resources were developed in close consultation with identified groups of CHRDs, from various backgrounds and with the support from Child Rights Connect’s Network members, including the Child Rights International Network (CRIN). Child Rights Connect also worked with UNEP around the development and implementation of the joint commitment by the Heads of UN entities to promote child participation in all environmental matters.
Building political consensus and influencing the development of new standards
In 2021 Child Rights Connect also sought to influence political consensus-building and standards-setting at the international level, for increased recognition, protection and empowerment of environmental CHRDs. 2020 and 2021 were instrumental years for making the healthy environment a child rights concern, particularly at the Human Rights Council (HRC), the inter-governmental body within the UN system responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. Early on in 2021 Child Rights Connect and its Working Group on children’s rights and the environment joined forces with a large civil society coalition to undertake advocacy for the recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, essential to advance children’s rights. As part of these efforts several statements were delivered at key moments during HRC sessions throughout the year to influence strategic resolutions on the environment, with a view to mainstream child rights. Child Rights Connect and its Working Group also joined a letter signed by more than a 1,000 NGOs urging the HRC to recognize this right.
In parallel, in 2021 Child Rights Connect and its members began preparations for supporting the development of a new General Comment of the CRC Committee focusing on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change, particularly with a view to ensure safe, empowering and sustained child participation in the development of this new authoritative guidance.
Ensuring child participation in climate justice litigation at the international level
Finally, on the front of climate justice litigation, Child Rights Connect engaged around the so-called “climate change case” (Sacchi et al v. Argentina et al) brought by 16 child petitioners before the CRC Committee (under its Optional Protocol on an Individual Communications procedure, OPIC). Child Rights Connect supported and helped facilitate child participation in the first ever oral hearings conducted by the CRC Committee. Child Rights Connect also provided advice to the Committee and OHCHR on how to conduct the hearing. While the case was found inadmissible for failure to exhaust domestic remedies, it was the first time an international body issued a ruling on climate inaction, which could set a precedent in several, significant ways. To highlight the positive elements of the decisions, Child Rights Connect publicized a legal analysis of their content, scope and potential impact (referred to by CRIN in an article).
What difference did this make
As a result of resourcing environmental CHRDs with lasting tools, Child Rights Connect has empowered CHRDs to gain awareness of, understand and speak up for their rights in support of their fight for greater climate justice. This is best exemplified by Melaia, Child Rights Connect’s Child Advisor from Fiji: “The drafting of the child friendly guide [on the rights of CHRDs] has educated me well on how safe child human rights defenders should feel when [they] work. It never occurred to me before that children have the right to feel free to express their views and to feel safe when standing up for what they believe in.” Many more environmental CHRDs stand to benefit from accessing and using the Guide and online CHRDs toolkit as these resources get further promoted, disseminated and used in follow-up activities.
“The drafting of the child friendly guide [on the rights of CHRDs] has educated me well on how safe child human rights defenders should feel when [they] work. It never occurred to me before that children have the right to feel free to express their views and to feel safe when standing up for what they believe in.” Melaia, Child Advisor from Fiji
Additionally, the institutional capacities of a large-scale actor in the defense of the environment, UNEP, have been developed to ensure their soon to be adopted Policy on human rights defenders is rolled out in a manner that is responsive and accountable to the views, aspirations and needs of environmental CHRDs. Children interacting with UNEP will directly benefit from this, as Child Rights Connect undertakes a training of UNEP staff on a child-sensitive implementation of their Policy in 2022. The training module for environmental CHRDs will also support UNEP’s engagement with children as they will learn about UNEP’s Policy through the module.
Also in 2021, children directly participated in the oral hearings over the “climate change case” and together with its decisions in October 2021, the Committee published an open letter to the child and young complainants and its first-ever child-friendly version of its decision. Child Rights Connect contributed to this process, primarily by providing technical assistance to the child petitioners and facilitating the communication between them and the CRC Committee, ensuring a smooth process. Following years of encouraging improved child participation practices by the Committee, Child Rights Connect also helped ensure the child participation process in the oral hearings observed and guaranteed adequate standards and safeguarding procedures, which can be replicated in the CRC Committee’s future oral hearings on climate justice and other pressing topics voiced by CHRDs.
Finally, by joining forces with other CSOs, Child Rights Connect successfully influenced different UN processes to include child rights language in high level decisions on human rights and the environment. As a result of the large coordination among NGOs and with the core group of States leading on the resolution, the Human Rights Council in September adopted the landmark resolution 48/13 recognizing for the first time that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. Thanks to the efforts of Child Rights Connect’s Working Group, this resolution built on resolution 45/30 on realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment which urged States to take the necessary measures to protect children’s rights from environmental harm as well as ensure that children are at the core of environmental decision-making. This is key as children most suffer from environment harm and stand to lose the most if global warming continues. “The right could prove a powerful tool – in their hands – to advocate for transformational change” (Jonas Schubert, convener of the Child Rights Connect Working Group on Children’s Rights and Environment and representative of CERI).
Child Rights Connect and its Working Group on children’s rights and the environment also influenced the resolution on the renewal of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment in significant ways. Building on the empowering language from the HRC resolution 45/30, this resolution recognizes the role of environmental CHRDs, includes an explicit reference to the need for the Special Rapporteur to consult with children and youth in its work, and reasserts State obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, including child rights, when addressing climate change. This is a major win as the initial text only expressed deep concern at the threats that environmental degradation poses for persons in vulnerable situations, including children, as well as the recognition of the specific vulnerability of children to the effects of environmental harm.
Child Rights Connect also influenced HRC resolution 48/14, establishing a new UN mandate, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. This will allow the Council to give focused and systematic attention to the impact of the climate change crisis on human rights and better respond to it. Following joint advocacy from the Child Rights Connect Working Group and CERI, the new Special Rapporteur has been mandated to consult with children and youth when discharging her/his mandate.
Reflections on impact
Reflecting more widely on the impact of these developments, the evolution of language in HRC resolutions between 2019 and 2021 highlights the increased recognition, by UN Member States, of the existence, role and status of environmental CHRDs, as a pre-requisite for further advancing their rights and tackling the climate crisis. Even though HRC resolutions are non-binding, they form an expression of strong political consensus and, as such, could emulate bolder and more progressive international policymaking on the environment, as called for by environmental CHRDs. In a letter from members of the HRC core group on human rights and the environment2 addressed to Child Rights Connect and other CSOs, thanking them for their “unwavering support” in accomplishing this “historic achievement”, several State representatives stressed the potential sustained impact of this gain: “The formal recognition of this right will certainly pave the way for more ambitious environmental commitments by all, and help to strengthen its intrinsic linkages with several other human rights.”
Key lesson learned
A key learning from this initiative is that without civil society movement-building and forming of alliances with key States, such a milestone would have probably not been achieved.