Are the rights of children enough to protect them from environmental harm?


By Pauline Robert
By Pauline Robert

Children are particularly affected by environmental degradation and exposed to environmental toxins. While destruction of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, climate change, industrial emissions, and mining damage the environment, they also affect children’s health worldwide. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, widely ratified, aims to protect children.

In the context of the 73rd session of Committee on the Rights of the Child, Friday September 23rd, 2016, was devoted to a general discussion about the rights of the child and the environment. Representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations, United Nations bodies, and the business community joined individual experts and children to discuss the implications and contents of the Convention.

The day began with introductory statements on the link between children’s rights and the environment and stressed the importance of a precautionary and preventive approach to further protect children’s rights and reduce environmental harm. Three children from Zambia, India, and Brazil testified on their respective living conditions. Despite their geographically distant homes, the children face similar issues around water, soil, and air pollution that affect their health and life. They reminded the room of their right to a healthy environment.

CIEL called for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment by the Committee on the Rights of the Child through oral interventions during the Day of Discussion as well as a written submission to the Committee.

HRC RofC_Pauline RobertThe Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox delivered a statement on this essential right. In it, he noted the increasing recognition of the right to a healthy environment in national constitutions since 1996, when Portugal was the first country to adopt it. Professor Knox called this phenomenon ‘greening on existing rights.’ Despite the encouragement of many experts, the right to a healthy environment has not been legally recognized at the international level.

The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes Baskut Tuncak also presented observations based on his latest report on the rights of the child and children’s exposure to toxic substances and pollution. He highlighted that children are now ‘born pre-polluted’ from in utero exposure. He detailed the impact of children exposure to chemicals on their rights to life, health, and development among many others. He also underscored the obligations and responsibilities of all actors, from states to private enterprises, to prevent childhood exposure.

The day was then split into two workshops; one on children’s exposure to environmental toxins and the other on children and the effects of environmental degradation including those related to climate change and the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources, the destruction of ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity. There was widespread agreement on the need for increased efforts to improve the protection of children’s rights and children’s exposure to toxics and pollution, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.

Recommendations from the Day of General Discussion on Children’s Rights and the Environment

Because children’s rights are particularly overlooked in climate policies and policies regarding children do not address climate change, efforts should be undertaken nationally and internationally to fully engage children in climate dialogues, to provide children access to information – especially children from marginalized communities – and to improve children’s access to legal remedies.

Childhood exposure to toxins is often called a ‘silent pandemic.’ To address this serious problem, participants recommended improvements on the application of the precautionary principle and the adoption of a child-rights approach. States were also advised to raise awareness among children and increase their participation in decision-makings, as well as develop and enforce legislation that would protect children and the environment from environmental degradation. In addition, because toxins affect children’s life, physical and mental development, future life and health, and have an inter-generational impact, participants suggested States develop and enforce legislation making businesses more accountable. States should also ensure that the right to a healthy environment is judicially enforceable to provide greater protection to children and address child rights in environmental impact assessments.

Meanwhile, in addition to the call for recognition of the right to a healthy environment, participants advised the Committee on the Rights of the Child to include a specific section on children’s rights and the environment in its “Concluding Observations.” Participants also strongly encouraged States and businesses to fulfill their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Committee of the Rights of Child’s General Comment No. 16 on State obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights.

Although participants and panelists provided an important list of recommendations, political will is necessary at all levels in order to guarantee all the rights of the child and to improve the vulnerability of children regarding the environment.


Originally posted: October 1, 2016