Realising children’s rights through a healthy environment


A child participates in the Global Climate Strike in 2019, in New York City © Johannes Eisele / AFP

“If nothing is done to protect the environment, then all your efforts to realise our rights will be scorched by the sun and drowned in the rain,” stated Junior, a 14 year-old child activist from Côte d’Ivoire.

Junior was speaking at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, where he delivered one of the opening statements at the annual full day meeting on the rights of the child.

He was one of two child activists to address the session. Junior works with children in Côte d’Ivoire to teach them to recognise their environmental rights, and to speak out when they are violated.

The meeting’s focus was on how the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is critical to realising children’s rights.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than one in four deaths of children under five are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks take the lives of 1.7 million children under five.

These risks include indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, inadequate hygiene and toxic exposures.

“Healthy environments are not only about allowing children to be healthy; it is about allowing them to achieve their full potential and protecting their rights,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director - Environment, Climate Change and Health at the WHO. “We have been listening to the children marching and demanding we protect their future. We no longer need to raise awareness; we need to act.”

For Dr Neira, action includes many priorities: ensuring clean fuel for heating and cooking inside homes; providing sanitation and hygiene in schools; creating more green spaces for children in urban planning; reducing the use of hazardous pesticides and chemicals; and better managing hazardous waste.

COVID-19: exacerbating the damage

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that the effects of environmental degradation on children and their rights – many of which are completely preventable – are only being compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic is a very powerful example of the threat to human well-being that results from environmental damage,” said Bachelet. “It intersects with other forms of environmental degradation, such as air pollution, which exacerbates people’s vulnerability to severe health outcomes when they are exposed to COVID-19.”

Bachelet urged that the response to COVID-19 focus on effective, child rights-based measures that protect and benefit those in the most vulnerable situations.

She called on States to consider children’s specific vulnerabilities and make sustained efforts to protect them from harm, as well as on businesses to ensure they are protecting child rights in their activities and operations.

“We are not the generation of destruction, we are the generation of transformation”

Carmen Juliana, 15, the second child activist to speak at the meeting, is part of a youth collective campaigning against the damaging environmental consequences of mining in Colombia. Her work focuses on how this degradation affects peasant and indigenous culture and tradition.

“World leaders, we want this space to go beyond the formal statements,” said Carmen. “We are not the generation of destruction, we are the generation of transformation. We demand that our ancestral ideas, knowledge and practices form the basis for creating a new healthy and harmonious environment.”

Environmental rights have been violated, according to Carmen, and she urged decision makers to incorporate the rights of children, young people and adolescents when producing policies.

Time to listen to children’s voices

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Dr. David Boyd, States are continuing to ignore scientists’ warnings about the gravity of the environmental crisis.

He said that while children are very vulnerable to the consequences of the climate emergency, young people are also key in finding solutions.

“If we are genuinely committed to serving the best interests of children, then let’s respond to their calls for action,” said Boyd.

He called on the Human Rights Council to pass a resolution recognizing that everyone, especially children, has the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

“We can and we must fulfil our commitment to the world’s children and provide them with a just and sustainable future,” concluded Boyd. “If we recognise it and implement it, the right to a healthy environment could be one of the most important human rights of the 21st century.”

7 July 2020

See also