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"No such thing as an unimportant child"- Bachelet on harm to children by air pollution

Right to Health and Right to Clean Air in the context of children’s rights and children’s environmental health
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

1 November 2018

Director-General Tedros,

Even though I am the High Commissioner, I am still a physician, a paediatrician and this is in my DNA. I am honoured to be addressing the first WHO Global Conference to focus on the essential topic of air pollution. 

After three days of extensive discussions, you are all aware of the terrible toll: in 2016 alone, more than 7 million deaths from air pollution, with over 500,000 of them children under the age of 5. 

And even more people suffer permanent harm. The numbers are truly shocking. The people worst affected are those who have contributed least to air pollution, and gained least from the processes, which cause it: children, and the poor. 

Around the world, 93 percent of children live in environments where air pollution exceeds WHO guidelines. This exposure threatens them at every stage of their development, from the womb onwards. Because of their metabolism, physiology and immune systems, pollution is likely to have severe and long-term impact on children’s growing bodies than on adults.

Air pollution makes it more likely that children will die young, or experience inhibited neural development, impaired lung function, asthma, respiratory infection, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

In many cases, children are not even safe breathing the air inside their own homes. The severity and extent of health damage caused by the use of polluting energy sources in cooking and heating has been known for many years. This speaks also about the right to have access to clean and sustainable energy for all. The use of toxic products inside the home – in cleaning products or construction materials, to take two examples – may further harm their health. 

Over 90 per cent of the health burden caused by pollution falls on people in developing countries. And within those countries, it is in poor communities that polluting industries are disproportionately located, exposing already disadvantaged families to hazardous levels of air pollution around the clock -- at work, in the street, in school and even inside their homes. 

Air pollution deepens inequalities, and compounds injustices. Air pollution’s impacts on human health are exacerbated by other forms of pollution – for example, in water, or in the soil. They are further multiplied by disadvantages linked to systemic discrimination and social and gender inequality. 

In other words, for entire communities, air pollution is making an already bad situation much worse. 

Moreover, climate change also generates a wide and increasingly severe set of human rights harms, which mostly affect those who can least afford to escape its impact. And in a depressing cycle of harm upon harm, air pollution is a factor in accelerating climate change –further deepening the harmful impacts caused by air pollution.

Excellencies, colleagues

There is no such thing as an unimportant child. 

There is no such thing as a disposable human being, or a disposable community.

It is an essential responsibility of every generation to safeguard the future, and the physical and mental well-being, of our children. 

And it is unacceptable that children be systematically damaged in this way.     

Everyone is entitled to the necessary conditions, which underlie the effective enjoyment of their rights, and there can be no doubt that all human beings are entitled to breathe clean air, without fear for their health or their lives. 

The interconnectedness of humanity, and our environment, make protection of the environment a fundamental pre-requisite for the enjoyment of all human rights: We see this becoming clearer every day, in the world around us. 

In fact, the Paris Agreement (under the United Nations Framework Convention) on Climate Change calls upon States, when taking climate action, to respect, promote and consider their respective human rights obligations.

And the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is a vital road map for both people and planet, explicitly recognises the need for human rights to be realised, in order to achieve its goals. 

Air pollution is clearly generating a comprehensive threat to human rights, including the right to health and rights related to life, food, water and development. It is urgent to halt the environmental degradation blotting out our collective future.
Efforts are underway to secure universal legal recognition of the human right to a healthy environment – a right that would encompass clean air and water, a safe and stable climate, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. 

Earlier this year, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and the Executive Director of UN Environment, jointly called for international recognition of the human right to a healthy environment.

In a General Comment on the rights of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on all States to address the danger that environmental pollution poses to children’s health in all settings. It describes climate change as a driver of health disparities and one of the biggest threats to children’s health. The Committee addressed pollution directly in 2016, when it examined the impact of environmental toxicants on children’s rights.

Moreover, the Human Rights Committee, in its recent General Comment on the right to life, describes environmental degradation as one of “the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life.” 

Eight years ago – following a General Comment by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which described the human right to water as a fundamental prerequisite for enjoyment of the right to health – the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation for the first time. 

It is only a matter of time before the international community formally recognizes the universal right to a healthy environment, including to clean air.

Indeed, in the coming year, States will begin discussions about a potential Global Pact for the Environment, discussions with the human right to a healthy environment at their core.

Recognition of the human right to a healthy environment at the global level would help promote and protect the rights of everyone, everywhere. 

It would extend to all people a right already recognized in 155 national jurisdictions and numerous regional legal instruments. It would help protect the very air we breathe.

Even in the absence of such global recognition, there is clearly a growing legal consensus, which demands a rights-based approach to air pollution. And just as clearly, there is growing cause for alarm, as illustrated throughout this first Global Conference. 

My Office is committed to ensuring the international community focuses on human rights based prevention, mitigation and solutions to air pollution.

In line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children’s best interests should guide decision-making. This requires minimizing their exposure to pollution, exercising precaution in the face of uncertainty and preserving the environment for current and future generations. 

It is vital to expand the space for civil society to participate in environmental decision-making – in order to ensure better decisions, and decisions that are accountable. 

As with all other areas of policy, States need to make evidence-based regulatory decisions that are transparent and free from conflicts of interest. They must avoid undue influence from different stakeholders, and ensure accountability for pollution-related harms. 

In the event that pollution-related harms do occur, States should ensure that those harmed have access to effective remedies and enforce the “polluter pays” principle of accountability. 

Importantly, international human rights law, and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, establish that people affected by pollution have the right to participate in decision-making processes. They should be able access information and justice in environmental matters; and must be free from reprisals for exercising their rights. Today, this access is not available to many of those affected by pollution  – including children and their parents. 

My Office will continue to work to expand civil society space, and to ensure that environmental human rights defenders who seek justice for themselves or their communities are protected from threats, reprisals, harassment and physical harm. 

We will support States in taking effective measures, nationally and through international cooperation, to prevent exposure to environmental harms such as air pollution through development of specific legislation; effective regulation; promotion of universal access to affordable and appropriate health care; and continuing efforts to ensure participation, access to information and access to remedy for those affected.

These are human rights imperatives. Thank you.