The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child protects the rights of every child and young person under than 18 years of age. Among the rights protected, are the rights to life, enjoyment of the highest possible standard of physical and mental health, education, adequate food, adequate housing, safe drinking water and sanitation. Besides those, children also enjoy the right to play and recreation.
The rights of the children are also recognised by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also established that,
‘Every child shall have, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth, the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.’
The Declaration on the Rights of the Child states that children ‘by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection.’
At a regional level, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which states all the freedoms entitled by every African child. Furthermore, the European Social Charter in its Article 7 the rights of children and young persons to protection.
Children’s rights and the right to a healthy environment
Children’s rights are closely related to the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment. Indeed, children are more vulnerable to the effects of environmental harm because of their evolving physical and mental development.
The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has listed the main four environmental factors that can interfere with children’s rights; air pollution, water pollution, climate change and chemicals, toxic substances and waste. According to him, ‘Childhood exposure to pollutants and other toxic substances also contribute to disabilities, diseases and premature mortality in adulthood.’
Moreover, ‘the Executive Director of UNICEF has stated that ‘there may be no greater, growing threat facing the world’s children — and their children — than climate change.’ As explained in the 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, ‘climate change contributes to extreme weather events, water scarcity and food insecurity, air pollution and vector-borne and infectious diseases, all of which already have severe effects on children.’
In relation to climate change, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a body of 18 independent experts that monitor the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by its State parties, said that
‘children are particularly vulnerable to the risks created by climate change. Almost all the substantive rights of the child may be affected by climate change: the right to life, survival and development, health, education, rest, leisure and play, housing, food, water and sanitation, and identity, as well as freedom from exploitation and all forms of violence. Consequently, when determining what mitigation and adaptation measures to take, States must take into account the rights and best interest of the child.’
Besides the fact that a healthy environment enables the realization of children´s rights, States have recognized there should also be opportunities to educate children on this issue, and the protection of the environment is a responsibility of all. In the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29, States parties agreed that the education of the child shall be directed to, among other things, the development of respect for the natural environment. Environmental education should begin early in the child’s educational process, reflect the child’s culture, language and environmental situation, and increase the child’s understanding of the relationship between humans and the environment.’ In this way, children are able to participate in environmental decision-making and have the right to access environmental information.