All children are entitled to a clean and healthy environment, a UN committee said for the first time on Monday, bolstering young people’s arguments for suing authorities over the ravages of climate change.
Issuing a fresh interpretation of an important international rights treaty, the United Nations watchdog determined that it guarantees children the right to a healthy environment.
And this, it said, means countries are obliged to combat things like pollution and climate change.
“States must ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights,” the Committee on the Rights of the Child said.
“Environmental degradation, including the consequences of the climate crisis, adversely affects the enjoyment of these rights.”
Tasked with monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the panel’s 18 independent experts provided a new interpretation of the treaty, which counts nearly all the world’s countries as parties.
The fresh analysis comes just weeks after a landmark court ruling in Montana in favor of a group of youths who accused the western U.S. state of breaching their rights to a clean environment.
The ruling found that a state law preventing consideration of greenhouse gas impacts when issuing fossil fuel development permits violated those rights.
That followed several other recent high-profile lawsuits, including the youngsters who won a case against the Colombian government over deforestation, and the children who secured a ruling ordering a strengthening of Germany’s carbon emissions law.
And the UN committee itself heard a case in 2021 brought by Greta Thunberg and 15 other young climate activists, in which it determined that countries bear cross-border responsibility for the harmful impact of climate change.
Holding states accountable
The new analysis could provide a new and powerful tool for young people seeking to bring such cases, committee chair Ann Skelton told AFP.
“Children themselves can use this instrument to encourage states to do the right thing, and ultimately to help to hold them accountable,” she said.
The new guidance, she said, “is of great and far-reaching legal significance.”
The 1989 convention does not explicitly spell out the rights of children to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment — but the committee argued the right was implicit and directly linked to a long line of guaranteed rights, including the right to life, survival and development.
“The extent and magnitude of the triple planetary crisis, comprising the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution, is an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally,” the UN committee said in its so-called general comment.
To reach its conclusions, the panel said it had consulted with governments, civil society and especially children.
More than 16,000 children of all ages across 121 countries provided comments, describing the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change on their lives and communities.
“Our voices matter, and they deserve to be listened to,” said a 17-year-old climate and child rights activist from India, named only as Kartik.
The new committee guidance “will help us understand and exercise our rights in the face of the environmental and climate crisis,” he said in a statement.
The committee’s findings are far-reaching, determining that the convention prohibits states from causing environmental harms that violate children’s rights.
“States must ensure that children’s voices are brought to the table when big decisions are being made,” Skelton said, adding that countries also needed to “make sure that businesses are toeing the line.”
Going forward, the committee could be called upon to determine if countries were properly regulating commercial activities in this area.
The convention also requires countries to work to reduce emissions and “mitigate climate change in order to fulfil their obligations”, the committee said, stressing children’s rights to protest against practices harming the environment.
Skelton said the committee had been inspired by children stepping up and “taking on the obligation to protect the environment, for themselves, but also for future generations.”