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Committee on the Rights of the Child holds general discussion on children’s rights and the environment

GENEVA (23 September 2016) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today held a day of general discussion on children’s rights and the environment. 
 
Introductory statements were delivered by Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization; Cecilia Rebong, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations Office at Geneva; Ignacio Packer, Secretary-General of Terre des Hommes International Federation; and John Knox, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.
 
The day continued with two Working Groups – one on children’s exposure to environmental toxicants, and another on children and the effects of environmental degradation, and children and climate change.
 
In the closing session, the two Working Groups’ conclusions were presented to the plenary meeting by Committee Members Olga Khazova, Gehad Madi and Clarence Nelson. Kirsten Sandberg, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and Chairperson of the Committee’s Working Group on Children’s Rights and the Environment, delivered concluding remarks.
 
The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 30 September at 5 p.m. for the public closing of its seventy-third session.
 
Opening Remarks
 
BENYAM DAWIT MEZMUR, Chairman of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said that many decisions on environmental issues had been made in recent years.  It was appropriate to link the environmental crisis the rights of the child because children were seriously affected by environmental degradation.  This day of general discussion had to focus on the link between children’s rights and the environment, as well as on possible ways to strengthen that link.
 
Introductory Statements
 
MARIA NEIRA, Director of the Department of Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization, stated that in  March the World Health Organization had published a report on the link between health and environment. The study had found that a quarter of deaths worldwide, or more than 12 million deaths annually, were due to environmental factors; 26 percent of those were children. The right to breathe clean air should be a human right, she insisted, deploring he fact that children were the most affected by air pollution. Children suffered from serious respiratory diseases, due to combustion fumes in homes where mothers prepared meals. Investment in clean energy was, thus, a good investment, in and of itself.  Instead of going to school, many girls collected firewood for several hours a day so that their mothers could cook.  Dr. Neira recalled that millions of children surrendered their lives due to polluted water and lack of sanitation. She also highlighted the problem of electronic waste, for which young children were exploited, and whose small hands were exposed to harmful products.  Child labour was unacceptable, she asserted.  All stakeholders were called upon to implement the laws, when those were available.  Those issues fell outside of one single industry, whether it was health or energy; they were interconnected, and thus required multi-sectoral action, which would have economic benefits of a healthier environment for children.
 
CECILIA REBONG, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations Office at Geneva, welcoming the children at the podium, stressed the importance that children's voices be heard.  The Philippines was very present in the discussions on the issue of the link between human rights and climate change because of the vulnerability of the country in that regard.  She recalled that the two most vulnerable categories of the population were women and children; the disabled and the elderly were also among the most affected populations.  Climate change affected the mobility of people, as well as their livelihoods, and it was the developing countries that were most exposed in that respect.  The principle of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times, set by the international community, was the only way to ensure that future generations were not affected disproportionately in terms of their human rights, their right to housing, and a healthy environment. All those matters had led to the putting climate change in the focus at the Council of Human Rights, where, as chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, the Philippines played a leadership role alongside other vulnerable nations, such as Bangladesh.
 
IGNACIO PACKER, Secretary-General of Terre des Hommes International Federation, said linking children’s rights and the environment was key to unlocking the underlying causes of numerous violations. Whereas his organisation had for a long time focused on children in armed conflicts, migrant children, indigenous and working children, they had realized that the major underlying issue that contributed to the plight of these children was the environment. That included the exposure to toxicants of children working in mining and agriculture, the depletion of natural resources forcing people to migrate to the cities, injustices related to land rights and access to water, or the destruction of entire ecosystems and the loss of cultural identity. If the world did not address the environmental issues, it would always fall short in realising children’s rights. Recent international agreements - the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Agreement - provided a unique chance to integrate a human rights approach. The reality was, however, that the Committee on the Rights of the Child was overlooked in setting and implementing world environmental policies and standards. For that to change,  there was a need to clarify what it meant concretely for environmental policies to be based on the norms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Day of General Discussion provided an opportunity to break new ground. The child rights community had to reach out to colleagues working on environmental issues, at both the policy level and local level, in order to develop practical tools.
 
GINA MARCELA PARRA CHIQUILLO, a child representative from Brazil, remarked that she was happy to be in Geneva where the air was clean and where she could drink the water. She told the audience about the environmental problems children faced in Brazil.
 
JENA RITU, a child representative from India, said that today, the air Delhi was full of toxicants including dust, smoke, chemicals and fibers. In schools, where they studied and played, and in the city, the air was bad.  Toxic wastes affected children, who often fell sick.  At an early age they developed a series of health issues like asthma and tuberculous, and, as a consequence, their studies suffered.  Her brothers, sisters and friends had been born in a place which in the past had been healthy, but adults had destroyed it.  Did people want them, she asked, to live with polluted land, water and air? It appeared that adults did not care for their lives, and children could not understand why.
 
CALEB MULENGA, a child representative from Zambia, stated that all 15 years of his life had been spent in the mining environment.  His home and school were all part of the mining environment. He went to school and lived and slept in the mining environment. His town was one of most polluted towns in the world - the water and the soil were polluted due to 100 years of mining. Lead was permanent in his body and he could not wash it away in the shower. Caleb stood there as a testimony of millions of children whose lives were endangered due to pollution of air, water and the environment. He asked the audience to make a commitment to do the best for him and many other children for a clean environment.
 
JOHN KNOX, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations on Human Rights and the Environment, stressed that the right to a healthy environment had come very late, recalling that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not mention it.  State constitutions had only started to address the right to a healthy environment recently, the first being Portugal in 1976.  The long silence was understandable, as human beings were only beginning to understand the risks.  Efforts to mitigate environmental harm were at the beginning. Within the framework of different rights addressed by the United Nations, a diverse jurisprudence had emerged in environmental rights, but it lacked coherence, as it addressed the other rights, such as the right to food, right to water, etc. Mr. Knox had tried to collect proposals from all the bodies responsible for the protection and promotion of the various rights, and had published fourteen reports mapping out what the various human rights bodies had said related to the environment.  Four main conclusions had been reached by those bodies, including the argument that human rights law required bodies and Governments to take steps to comply with three categories of obligations: procedural, substantive, and heightened obligations. Mr. Knox summarized in one sentence what all those reports had said. “We must have a healthy environment in order to exercise human rights, and we must have human rights in order to have a healthy environment.”
 
Presentation of the Working Groups’ Conclusions
 
Working Group 1 dealt with children’s rights in the context of environmental toxicants.
 
OLGA KHAZOVA, Committee Member, stated that environmental toxicants exposure directly affected the enjoyment of children’s rights, most importantly their survival, development, and their ability to attain the highest available standard of health.  If a child was sick, its ability to go to school was also adversely affected, said Ms. Khazova. Environmental toxicants came from many different sources and manifested as air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination.  One of the key observations of the Working Group 1 was that children were the most vulnerable group to environment toxicant exposures.  Environmental toxicants affected whole children’s life, their entire physical and mental development and affected their future life and health as adults.  Toxicants also had an inter-generational impact, and could sometimes be referred to as “silent pandemic”.  Challenges include the lack of information and access to information, as well as the lack of mandatory State obligations to regulate business.  The negative impact of corruption ought to be mentioned as well.  The lack of effective redress mechanisms was one of the key challenges.  Ms. Khazova stated that States were recommended to develop specific legislation on the protection of children from environmental toxicants and conduct child rights impact assessments of public policies.  Data should be collected and fully disclosed, and children’s participation ensured.     
 
Working Group 2 addressed questions on how threats to natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity impacted children’s rights, as well as on the relations between children’s rights and climate change.
 
GEHAD MADI, Committee Member, noted that threats to natural resources affected health, life, survival and development, play, leisure and the adequate standard of living od children. It was highly important that in every State children were listened to.  Child-friendly information ought to be made available for different age groups.  Basic elements of a child rights-based approach in the protection of the environment included respect for evolving capacities, environmental education and non-discrimination. It was not clear how children’s rights were taken into consideration in legislation, policies and practices related to biodiversity, natural resources and ecosystems.  Turning to the recommendations, Mr. Madi stated that awareness-raising and education activities were very important for informing children about the environment and their participation in decision-making.  When harm had been caused, children could access protection measures and redress through direct representation, class action and/or Children’s Commissioner.  States needed to better enforce the existing legislation and develop further legislation for the protection of the environment; and those collaborating on children’s rights ought to cooperate better.  The Committee should encourage States parties to submit information on measures taken to protect children’s rights in relation to the environment. 
 
CLARENCE NELSON, Committee Member, said that children were disproportionately affected by climate change.  Children’s rights were overlooked in national and international climate policies, and climate change was frequently omitted from child-related policies.  Children and youth had very strong views on climate change.  There was a lack of information and disaggregated data on children most at risk and measures required to deal with the challenges.  The recommendations included utilising children’s creativity and experience, and establishing child platforms for peer sharing and learning.  It should be ensured that information was accessible to marginalized children as well.  States were advised to place children’s rights at the centre of national and international programmes and to ensure that children were fully involved in the policy dialogue on climate change. The Committee on the Rights of the Child should address mitigation in its concluding observations, which should incorporate a stand-alone section on child rights and the environment.  General recommendations referred to the need to collect disaggregated data and explore legal remedies and options through the courts.  Human rights and environmental experts were encouraged to interact on a more regular basis.
 
Concluding Comments
 
KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and Chairperson of the Committee’s Working Group on Children’s Rights and the Environment, said that the General Discussion had managed to bring together discourses on children’s rights and environmental issues.  The knowledge, commitment and passion of the young people present was impressive.  Children, who were the future generation, were here today, and their rights ought to be looked after today already.  Terre des Hommes was thanked for having proposed the topic of the General Discussion, and making a significant contribution to the success of the event.  The Committee would publish a report on today’s General Discussion, and would certainly continue to look into the issue.  
 
Closing Remarks
 
BENYAM DAWIT MEZMUR, Chairman of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, stated that the day had been successful.  What was done in meetings was important, but even more important was what would be done outside of meeting rooms.  One should not forget the role children played in the issues discussed today; the role of partnerships was equally important.  Mr. Mezmur saw today’s General Discussion as “the beginning of a beginning”.

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