Landmark UN Ratification of Children's Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment

In August 2023, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published its General Comment No. 26 on children's rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change (child-friendly version). The landmark text, driven by the children's movements worldwide to draw attention to the environmental crises, explicitly addresses the impact of climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and the pervasive pollution on the life perspectives of children; confirms children's right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; and clarifies States' obligations regarding environmental harm and climate change. 

The process to prepare General Comment No. 26 was broadly participatory. In addition to the usual contributions from subject matter experts and States, children played a key role in the participation process. Right from its start in the 2016 general discussion by the Committee of the Rights of the Child on children's rights and the environment, and up to its publication in 2023, the Committee deployed an extensive consultation process, by means of surveys, focal groups and in-person meetings, to gather the contributions of 16,331 children from 121 countries.    

The legal importance and far-reaching scope of General Comment No. 26 is undeniable. The document specifies that States are responsible not only for protecting children's rights from immediate environmental harm, but also for violations of their rights in the future due to States' acts or failure to act today. Furthermore, the Committee includes a series of legislative and administrative recommendations that States should urgently apply given the adverse effects of the triple planetary crisis (climate emergency, collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution), to guarantee a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, while also focusing on preserving it for future generations.

The Committee is thus expressing awareness of the obstacles facing children to access their environmental rights. In particular, it stresses the legal barriers due to children's lack of legal standing. Consequently, it calls on the States to provide the appropriate and accessible mechanisms for children to be regularly consulted and in all the phases of the environmental decision-making processes regarding legislation, policies and projects that could affect them. Furthermore, States should provide access to justice pathways for children, whether in judicial, quasi-judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, that are gender-responsive and disability-inclusive. The Committee here stresses the importance of children being able to file complaints with national human rights institutions.  

The Ararteko, as reported in the 2022 Annual Report of the Children and Young People's Rights Department of the Ombudsman of the Basque Country-Ararteko to the Basque Parliament, has closely followed the process to prepare General Comment No. 26. In that regard, special mention should be made of its participation at the progress meetings, as well as in the dissemination of calls to participate in the consultation period, and its contribution with content using the appropriate pathways. Regarding the consultations and contributions, mention should also be made of the participation in meetings of civil society, such as the one organised by  the Platform of Childhood Organisations on “Childhood and Climate Crisis”.

Furthermore, in 2022, the Ararteko’s Children and Young People’s Rights Department coordinated the ENYA (European Network of Young Advisors) FORUM in Bilbao, led by 34 adolescents from 17 European regions as part of the reflection process of the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children ENOC on children’s rights and climate justice. The FORUM culminated in a series of recommendations address to public authorities, which were incorporated into ENOC’s institutional statement, and further forwarded to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Taking stock of this work, the Ararteko produced a documentary on children’s rights and climate justice called COLOUR:EARTH, where we gathered reflections on the climate crisis from an intergenerational perspective and from children’s approach.