Table of contents
Children’s rights and climate justice
Children and young people in Scotland have told us that one of the most important issues to them is climate change and environmental degradation.
Climate justice is about protecting the environment for this generation and for future ones. In Scotland, there are calls to introduce a right to a Healthy Environment into domestic law.
In our own work, younger children have told us that they care about “tiny bees, playing outside, being with friends and feeling safe”. They said that being outside feels “amazing, they feel excited and love the rainbows”. Older children have exercised their right to protest and held protests across Scotland to express their views, demanding change, and protections in laws to protect their planet.
A right to a healthy environment encompasses rights to clean air, a safe climate, access to safe water and sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems. Other important areas include the right to access to environmental information, participation in decision-making relating to the environment, and access to justice.
All of these issues are children’s rights issues, protected under the UNCRC and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Watch Laura’s video to find out more about the impact on climate change on children in Shetland.
What do the UNCRC and ECHR say?
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
Article 24 of the UNCRC says that children and young people have the right to the best health possible. As part of that, it says that States should think about the dangers and risks of environmental pollution when they take steps to combat disease and malnutrition.
Article 3 of the UNCRC is one of the most important articles in the UNCRC, and many other articles are related to it. It says that the interests of children and young people should be thought about at all levels of society and that their rights should be respected by people in power.
Article 29 of the UNCRC is about the aims of education. It says that one of these is to make sure children and young people develop respect for the natural environment.
While the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does not directly provide for the right to a healthy environment, its protection of other fundamental rights, such as: the right to life (Article 2), privacy and family life (Article 8), and property (Article 1 of Protocol No. 1), can be affected by climate change and environmental harm.
In its case-law to date, the European Court of Human Rights has recognised the potential influence of environmental harm and risks on the exercise of Convention rights. This topic is gaining attention, and there are currently three cases awaiting a decision from the Grand Chamber of the Court regarding state responsibility in addressing climate change.
What do the UN say governments must do about climate change?
The Concluding Observations made recommendations that the UK and Scottish Government should:
- Strengthen national legislation to protect the environment.
- Have national plans and strategies in place to cope with adverse weather impacts.
- Strengthen children’s right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and ensure that children are not threatened for exercising their right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, including for their involvement in climate activism.
- Ensure children are educated about their rights, the environment, and environmental harms.
- Incorporate the UNCRC in to domestic law in Scotland
In July 2023 a new General Comment will be published on Children’s Rights and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change (General Comment No. 26). This is the official UN guidance on how children’s rights are impacted by the environmental crisis and what governments must do to uphold these rights.
Our position and work
The best thing the Scottish Government can do to secure children’s and young people’s right to life is to fully implement the UNCRC into domestic law. Alongside this, they should also set out a plan, with clear timescales for how they will act on the recommendations made in the concluding observations and enshrine the right to a healthy environment into domestic law.
Our office has done much to raise the issue of climate justice as well as supporting children and young people to express their views and defend their rights.
In 2016 we supported children from Scotland to attend a day of general discussion on climate justice, where the right to protest was discussed and its importance in combatting environmental degradation.
In 2019 we published ‘Promote, Protect, Defend’. This report explored the ways in which children and young people can stand up for their rights and their role as human rights defenders. For example, in February 2019 children across the UK walked out of their primary and high schools in protest for action on climate change. Protests took place in over 60 cities and towns, with an estimated 15,000 young human rights defenders taking part.
In March 2021 we submitted our response to the Scottish Government consultation on a net zero nation. We stressed that climate change policy must be accessible, in child-friendly language, and drafted in a manner that enables children and young people to engage with the policy and ongoing Government action. We also stressed that under the UNCRC, States have an obligation to ensure that children and young people’s education includes a focus on the environment.
In May 2021 we provided a submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to advance climate justice. At the time of the 2019 school strikes, the Commissioner received reports about school pupils being threatened with detention or other punishments for going on climate strikes. We stressed that Children who are climate activists are also human rights defenders and entitled to the same protections as adults. Human rights defenders should not face reprisals for peaceful protest – no matter their age. Detention after school, deducting rewards or grades, and suggesting that engaging in peaceful protest will negatively affect a child’s future, amount to punishment.
In September 2021 we wrote a Letter to Education Directors: Supporting Climate Strikes.
In October 2021 we supported young people to attend COY16, the International Conference of Youth on Climate Change.
In November 2021 we held an online interactive side event to COP-26 on children’s access to climate justice alongside the Child Rights International Network and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. We Presented a justice-focused response to COP-26 that addresses children’s human rights within the broader picture of what it will take to tackle the climate crisis and recognises the role of children and young people’s leadership in the fight for climate justice.
In December 2021 we submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Office Report on Child Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals on the theme of: “Building back better from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while advancing the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
Young people agreed that State and corporate responsibility for pollution and other acts that harm the environment should receive greater attention and those responsible held accountable. We argued that governments need a comprehensive child rights-based approach to children’s rights and climate justice, including data collection and monitoring and consideration of children’s rights in decision-making, meaningful engagement with children in decision-making processes, child rights budgeting, and transparency in resource allocation.
In September 2022 we contributed to the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children’s (ENOC), position statement on children’s rights and climate justice, which included a yearlong project with our Young Advisors. It was clear that children across Europe were concerned about the impact of climate change. Recognising this, we urged governments, the European Commission and the Council of Europe to undertake all appropriate measures to respect, protect and fulfil the right of children to a healthy
environment. We called upon these actors to take all appropriate measures to mitigate the climate crisis so that children and future generations can have healthy futures.
In February 2023 we provided our submission to the UN regarding draft General Comment No. 26, Children’s Rights, and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change. We stressed that State Parties should develop direct relationships with children, including in early years settings, to inform policy, legislation, practice, and decision-making. Also, States Parties should fund, and support youth lead campaigns and activities designed to tackle climate change and promote climate justice.
In August 2023 the UN then published the final General Comment No. 26, Children’s Rights, and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change. This explains to governments how children’s rights are related to the enviroment and climate change and what governments must do to protect them. This was a global effort informing General Comment No.26 – particularly the key role over 16,000 children played in its development including those from Scotland.
Our office has also established links with the Just Transitions Commission. The Commission and our office, agreed to meet on a quarterly basis to look at areas of collaboration. We are planning engagement in 2023 with children and young people and will meet on a quarterly basis with the Commission.
We will continue to hold the Scottish Government to account for its human rights obligations to children and remind duty-bearers of their legal obligations.