The fight for children’s rights

On Human Rights Day, Kamena Dorling reflects on how children are claiming their right to protect the planet’s future.

Children hold placards during a global climate change strike rally in Nicosia, Cyprus September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
Children hold placards during a global climate change strike rally in Nicosia, Cyprus September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

In September, the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg made an impassioned intervention at the UN Climate Action Summit that went viral: ‘You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.’

Her powerful speech coincided with a legal complaint submitted by Thunberg and 15 other young people to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. They are targeting five of the world’s biggest carbon polluters, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey, who they say are violating their rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), by failing to sufficiently address climate change.

The group, including a young Sami reindeer herder, a member of the indigenous Yupiaq tribe from Alaska, and teenagers from the Marshall Islands, outlined the suffering they have already experienced from climate change including wildfires, floods, drought and threats to their traditional ways of life.

Following the UNCRC’s 30th anniversary in November, this action is a stark example of how those under 18 years of age feel forced to take protection of the planet into their own hands. It reflects a political climate in which children and young people increasingly feel they are being denied a voice and a stake in their own future.

Activism from young people, particular Thunberg, has largely been met with a sneering backlash across social and mainstream media. This is in part because their actions are perceived to have breached a long-held belief that ‘childhood is an age of innocence and being dependent on adults’ – that it is up to adults, not children, to protect the future.

But the right to be heard is a key foundation of the UNCRC enshrined in Article 12, which stipulates that children have a right to express their views, as well as ‘the right to be involved in actions and decisions that impact on her or his life.’ This includes decisions affecting their day to day lives as well as those affecting the world in which they grow up.

The complaint was filed through the Third Optional Protocol to the UNCRC, which came into force in 2014. It is a voluntary mechanism that allows children, or adults on their behalf, to appeal directly to the United Nations for justice against a country that has ratified the protocol but fails to remedy a rights violation.

Some 46 countries have ratified the protocol, but this does not include the US and China, which produce the most greenhouse-gas emissions globally. The UK has also not signed up, despite having ratified equivalent UN protocols on disability and discrimination.

Five years ago, the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights highlighted that ‘with the recent reforms to legal aid, there are growing concerns about the extent to which children [in the UK] enjoy practical and effective access to the legal remedies that do exist in domestic law.’

Last year the Children’s Rights Alliance England lamented the lack of progress on signing up to UNCRC complaints procedure. But mechanisms like the Third Optional Protocol can empower children to effect real change. While the committee’s recommendations are not legally binding, the treaty’s signatory nations have agreed to follow them.

As we mark Human Rights Day, let us not forget children’s rights. Let us commit to empowering those under 18 to understand, protect and promote their own rights. As our understanding of human rights evolves in response to global challenges, it must become increasingly difficult to sidestep our obligation to give children a say in their own future. In the words of Thunberg, ‘the eyes of all future generations are upon you’.

Kamena Dorling is the Group Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Coram, a UK-based children’s legal charity.