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While bearing the brunt of the triple planetary crisis, children remain largely excluded from related decision-making

“Adults! The real victims of environmental destruction are us, children”, said a 11-year-old child from Korea.

We cannot agree more. According to two WHO reports released in 2017, every year, 1.7 million children below the age of 5 die from environmental pollution such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene. It is reported that by 2041, one in four children are likely to live in areas of extreme high-water stress. As the planet warms up, higher rates of malnutrition, exploitation, and health problems will threaten the wellbeing of children and fulfillment of their rights. While children least contribute to environmental degradation, the triple planetary crisis – climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss – strips them of their rights in existential and sustained ways. The examples are countless.

“When there are floods, I don’t feel happy. We can’t go to classes because of the flooded roads and people are fired from their jobs…”, said a 11-years-old girl from Costa Rica.

The triple planetary crisis also contributes to deepening inequalities within and across borders and generations.

Children facing intersecting discrimination, such as girls, indigenous children, and children with disabilities, and those living in poverty or in fragile contexts, pay a heavier price as they enjoy fewer resources to adapt and opportunities to engage in climate policy processes.

“As a Syrian girl living in a tent, climate change affects me a lot. When it rains, water enters the tent through the fabric. This fills our pillow and mattress with water, and the tent gets flooded. We must go to our neighbour’s house to sleep”, explained a girl living in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Children have not given up on growing up in a clean, healthy, sustainable environment. In the wake of the Fridays for Future protests,[1] across the globe, more and more children mobilise, speak up and act, as child human rights defenders, to demand urgent action to address the environmental crisis. Save the Children’s 2021 study, “Born into the Climate Crisis: Why we must act now to secure children’s rights” (which consulted over 54,000 children across 6 continents), the wide children’s consultations undertaken in 2022 and 2023 as part of informing the new General Comment of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee) on climate change, and our work in recent years show how crucial it is for children to be able to meaningfully inform decisions tackling how environmental harms affect their lives. Children repeatedly ask for more opportunities to be heard and for adults to not only listen to their opinions but also empower them to take environmental action, at different levels.

“Adults, stop procrastinating and get moving with us to make a change. we don’t want: ‘you are the new generation, you have to change the world’. The world, you will rock it with us” said a 15-year-old girl from Bangladesh.

However, by large, children’s calls for action have been ignored so far and, at times, even silenced. Widespread “adultism” and adults’ tendency not to take children seriously, children’s limited access to education and support, and the lack of child-friendly information have, among other factors, restricted children’s access to environmental discussions and decision-making processes at the national, regional, and international levels. And, when they have been able to participate, children’s lack of resources, connections, tools, and support has undermined their ability to meaningfully influence these processes and have a say on decisions.

This is what a girl from Greenland addressing the CRC Committee at the opening of its 92nd session in January 2023 sought to challenge: “[…] you need children’s participation to exactly tell you how we feel and what we need from you. This includes us as child advisors and all the thousands of children taking part in the consultations all over the world. Only this will give you a General Comment that stands so true to us children.”

What we did and contributed to in 2023

Supporting an unprecedent, multi-level child participation process

Between 2021 and 2023, we tirelessly worked on meeting children’s key demand of being associated to the development of new international guidance on children’s rights and the environment. By supporting our member, Terre des Hommes Germany, we have helped children organize to shape the CRC Committee’s General Comment 26 on Children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change (hereafter GC26). CRC Committee’s General Comments are very important as they clarify the content of rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and offer guidance to State parties on how to best meet their related obligations.

We assisted Terre des Hommes Germany in setting up and managing a Children’s Advisory Team (hereafter called GC26 CAT), modelled on our own CAT, as a key milestone of a broader child participation process to shape GC26. This was the very first time that the Committee worked directly with child advisors in the development of a General Comment. The GC26 CAT was made up of 12 child experts aged between 10 and 17 from different regions, backgrounds and with diverse lived experiences. Facilitated by Terre des Hommes Germany with our technical advice, and additional support from local and regional supporting organisations, the GC26 CAT played a central role in ensuring that children from across the globe had meaningful opportunities to feed the development of the General Comment; advised GC26 based on children’s feedback; and developed and disseminated among children globally the child-friendly version of the adopted General Comment.

Caption: The GC26 CAT

The GC26 CAT significantly shaped the methodology for engaging other children – through surveys and workshops in part led by children and young people – as well as designed and disseminated communications materials raising awareness of the consultations among children. Using our convening power as a network, we mobilised our wide, diverse membership across the globe – from local to global organisations – in facilitating a wider child participation process. This led to an unprecedent number of children contributing to the General Comment process. In total, across the two phases of children’s consultations – on the zero draft of GC26 in 2022 and on the full draft in 2023 – 16’331 contributions from children across 121 countries were received, with resulting reports shared with the Committee and made public. For many children, the consultations allowed them to learn about their rights and issues related to the environment and climate change. We heard that they “fostered a sense of hope amongst children that their answers will reach governments, and that something positive will come out of this” (as reported to Terre des Hommes Germany). The Child Advisors were also behind many of the new ideas to raise global awareness of the adopted General Comment, such as a launch event in Geneva and a social media campaign on the GC26 CAT channels.

We played a key supporting role for the GC26 CAT, building their capacity to engage in the General Comment process, starting in 2022. In the early days, we delivered a capacity-building workshop for Terre des Hommes Germany on how to establish and operate a Children’s Advisory Team in a safe, inclusive, and empowering way, building on our own experience and learning. As GC26 CAT was up and running, we  supported with the coordination of their activities, including around child-friendly materials, children’s global and regional consultations, the mobilisation of Child Rights Connect members, other stakeholders, and external communications. In 2023, we trained the GC26 CAT on how to create child-friendly resources which was led by one of our Child Advisors who is very active on the field of environmental.

In support of the launch of the General Comment by the Committee, together with Terre des Hommes, we empowered the GC26 CAT to co-design and support,  the official launch of General Comment 26, including an inter-generational dialogue at the UN in Geneva and a tree-planting ceremony. To ensure an empowering and safe environment during these activities, we delivered a child safeguarding workshop to the Child Advisors and we supported the organisation of advocacy meetings with key stakeholders to make the most of their stay in Geneva. We provided support to the CRC Committee and Terre des Hommes Germany for the launch, and coordinated with our Network members, especially with our Working Group on children’s rights and the environment to promote the launch and ensure global attention, through an advocacy and communication strategy.

We contributed to ensuring a safe, empowering and supportive space for the GC26 CAT to engage with the Committee throughout the process, share their inputs on activities related to the General Comment, widely mobilise other children to participate in the development of the General Comment, and raise awareness around and disseminate the General Comment, including in their schools, communities and organisations.

Caption: Invitation to the tree-planting ceremony around the launch of the General Comment

Mobilising more widely children and other civil society actors

The GC26 CAT was established specifically for the development and launch of the GC26. It was thus timebound. In order to ensure long-term child participation on environmental issues, including in the implementation of GC26, we mobilised our own permanent, global  (CAT),  of members, as well as partners to engage children, including child environmental human rights defenders, in global and regional consultations. This allowed for the inclusion of a larger number of children in the discussions on the General Comment widening the coverage of children’s lived experiences and challenges. We organised a capacity-building workshop for our CAT on climate change and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which was led by one of our Child Advisors who is very active in the field of environment. Our Child Advisors subsequently engaged in awareness-raising campaigns around the launch of GC26, including a social media campaign to count down to the launch, provided feedback on the child-friendly version of the General Comment, and started reflecting on the potential  development of a school awareness-raising kit, to disseminate GC26 and conscientise children worldwide about States’ obligations to protect their rights in the context of climate change.

Children highly valued their involvement in the process, as a safe, empowering and supportive space was created.  .  They also indicated having acquired or enhanced, during the process, their knowledge of children’s rights, climate change, the role of the Committee and the use and significance of General Comments as well as their skills, such as around leadership, working online and collaborating remotely. One of them stated: “I have loved being able to meet and work with incredible people and form friendships that will always be so special to me. I feel empowered and moved by the adults because they seem to truly value children’s contributions to the process. […].” 

Providing expert advice on the content of the General Comment

Beyond child participation, we also contributed to guiding the CRC Committee in developing, and raising awareness about, GC26, through our Working Group on children’s rights and the environment, as well as experts in the Advisory Board coordinated by Terre des Hommes Germany and the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative, which included several members of Child Rights Connect, such as the Child Rights International Network, Human Rights Watch, and Save the Children. Building on our collective success in influencing the recognition of the right to a  clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right by the Human Rights Council in 2021 (see here), and subsequent universal recognition by the UN General Assembly, in February 2023, we made a joint submission on the first draft of the General Comment, led by  our Working Group, making recommendations both on the structure and content of the General Comment.

Caption: Signatories of the joint submission on the first draft of GC26

Most of the submitted suggestions have been accepted and incorporated in the final General Comment by the CRC Committee. In an informal meeting with them in December 2023, the Committee indicated that Child Rights Connect Working Group on children’s rights and the environment is the go-to partner for follow-up activities on GC26. Currently, the Committee is in discussions with the Working Group to ensure GC26 is well known globally and nationally and effectively implemented by State Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

What difference did this make

Through our joint work with Terre des Hommes Germany, and the Child Rights Connect Working Group on children’s rights and the environment, other Child Rights Connect’s members and partners, greater, and safe and meaningful, space for children to not only engage in but influence high-level standards-setting on the environment and climate change has been achieved. GC26, now available in six languages, is the outcome of significant global consultations, inclusive of children. The CRC Committee went from carrying out consultations with over 700 children from 26 countries for its General Comment 25 to 16,331 children from 121 countries for its GC26, marking a significant improvement. The newly launched document is the outcome of international and intergenerational engagement as the Committee also received inputs from States, experts, and other stakeholders through two rounds of consultations. GC26 has been well received by those involved in its development, States, and broader civil society, including for its potential significance beyond international children’s rights law. Children reported that “they could see their contributions in the text and that this has made them feel genuinely listened to and taken seriously” . A GC26 Child Advisor said: “Children were at the centre. Even when reading the General Comment, you see there are so many references to children – their words are in there. I think this shows how central children are, and how central child participation was in this process.”  The child-friendly version of GC26, available in four languages, has also been positively received by children and civil society as testified to by the growing demand for more language versions.

Caption: Cover of the child-friendly version of GC26

The key result of all this work is the General Comment per se, which attracted significant international media attention (including the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, CNN, Reuters). GC26 marks an historic milestone as it is the first time the CRC Committee has officially recognized children’s right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, as called for by our Working Group submission and others. GC26 is the first and only official document emanating from the UN human rights mechanism so far that mirrors the UN General Assembly Resolution adopted in 2022 spelling out the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. GC26 provides authoritative and comprehensive guidance on the crucial steps that States must take to ensure that children can grow up in a world that is not only clean, green, and healthy but also sustainable. The guidance states that children’s views must be considered in environmental decision-making and stresses the critical role of environmental education in preparing children to act, advocate, and protect themselves from environmental harm.  The General Comment has three major pillars. First, it sheds light on the harmful impacts on children of the triple planetary crises (the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution) on specific rights. Second, it clarifies how environmental protection is beneficial to children’s rights and enshrines children’s right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Finally, it specifies that States are responsible not only for protecting children’s rights from immediate harm, but also for foreseeable violation on their end. States can now be held accountable for environmental harm occurring both within and outside their borders.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, praised it “a vital step forward”. Agnes Gracia, our Head of Programmes and member of the Advisory Board, stated that this document “represents a long-awaited momentum toward securing a better future for our planet and its youngest inhabitants”. “There is no doubt that its contents strongly reflect children’s concerns around the environment and that it will be deployed as an advocacy tool at the national and international levels. The extent to which the General Comment will push forward children’s enjoyment of their rights in the context of environmental harm in practice remains to be seen, but the General Comment will certainly have an impact in that arena”, said Professor Aoife Nolan, member of the Advisory Board.

What have we learned

This child participation process has been one of the most inclusive at the UN. Learning from this process shows the importance of devising a clear roadmap for child participation outlining various opportunities for engagement and their indicative timeline; clearly defining the role of both the child and adult advisors and their collaboration; strictly implementing child safeguarding procedures; and adapting methodologies for children’s consultations to the needs of children of different ages, background, and abilities.

This General Comment has brought unprecedented attention by children and other international actors to the work and working methods of the CRC Committee. There is room to capitalise on this, towards institutionalizing the participation of children in the development of General Comments by the CRC Committee. The above successful process shows that this takes dedicated resources, expertise, and partnerships.

The wide engagement of children and civil society in this process highlights once more the added value of the global, diverse and rich membership of Child Rights Connect, and the convening power of the network in collaboratively influencing international guidance. It also underscores the added advantage of Child Rights Connect Working Groups, as thematic platforms providing specific expertise, advice and guidance to key processes.