Rights of Children, Future Generations amid the Triple Planetary Crisis
Children are saying loudly: “The environment is our life.” “Adults [should] stop making decisions for the future they won’t experience. [We] are the key means [of] solving climate change, as it is [our] lives at stake.” “We are the future generations and, if you destroy the planet, where will we live?!”
A voice for the generations yet unborn has yet to be spoken. However, normative development in the last period.
On 22 August 2023, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted it much-anticipated General Comment No. 26, advising states parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention) on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change. The CRC’s authoritative interpretation of the Convention reaffirms and offers some needed content to the right to healthy, clean and sustainable environments as recognized by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.
The CRC applies specifically child rights-based approach to the environment in full consideration of all children’s rights under the Convention. To realize children’s rights as the result treats children as “entitled to protection from infringements of their rights stemming from environmental harm and to be recognized and fully respected as environmental actors.” This requires particular attention to “the multiple barriers faced by children in disadvantaged situations in enjoying and claiming their rights.”
While considering intergenerational equity and future generations, the General Comment specifies that “Children, including displaced children, should have access to adequate housing that conforms to international human rights standards.” CRC asserts also that
“housing should be sustainable and resilient and should not be built on polluted sites or in areas facing a high risk of environmental degradation. Homes should have safe and sustainable sources of energy for cooking, heating, lighting and appropriate ventilation and be free from mould, toxic substances and smoke. There should be effective management of waste and litter, protection from traffic, excessive noise and overcrowding and access to safe drinking water and sustainable sanitation and hygiene facilities” [para. 48].
The General Comment adds:
“Children should not be subject to forced evictions without prior provision of adequate alternative accommodation, including relocation linked to development and infrastructure projects addressing energy and/or climate mitigation and adaptation action. Child rights impact assessments should be a prerequisite for such projects. Particular attention should be paid to preserving the traditional land of Indigenous children and protecting the quality of the natural environment for the enjoyment of their rights, including their right to an adequate standard of living” (para. 49).
The Committee goes on to emphasize the importance of the over-riding implementation principles of international cooperation, rule of law and non-discrimination in situations of cross-border displacement and migration linked to climate-related and environment-related events, as well as armed conflict situations. Notably, as HLRN pointed out in its input to the General Comment deliberation process, CRC states should not deport children and their families to any place where they would face a real risk of grave violations as a result of the adverse effects of environmental degradation.
The General Comment provides seven immediate actions that state should take to realize the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment para. 65]. Those relate to environmental protection, while the General Comment emphasizes also measures needed for transformative, inclusive, child-centred, child-friendly and empowering rights-based environmental education with both a local and global orientation. And that education should acknowledge the close interrelationship between respect for the natural environment and other ethical values enshrined in the Convention [para. 53].
Rights of Future Generations
Already in the 1970s and 1980s understanding was growing that a “business as usual” model was exposing the Earth, present generations (particularly children and youth, as well as future generations, to increasing hazards and existential threats. More recently, these threats have multiplied and burgeoned into a “triple environmental crisis” of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. The cause is primarily human activities of extraction, production and consumption that exceed “planetary boundaries.”
Deed to this are not-unrelated global health threats such as the Covid-19 pandemic, inadequately regulated new technologies, the scourge of war with the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, and the erosion of long-established norms of democratic governance and civil and political rights in many countries.
Despite the gravity of the human rights threats faced by future generations and a rapidly evolving scholarship on this subject, insufficient attention has been paid to the human rights of future generations within the UN and other multilateral forums. To fill this gap, scholars and human rights experts converged to build on three prior Maastricht initiatives to articulate the related human rights principles that have made major contributions to the development of human rights law and culture: The Limburg Principles on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1986); the Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1997); and the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2011). The fourth Maastricht project completed in February 2023 focuses on addressing the major gap in human rights protection: the human rights of future generations.
The Maastricht Principles on the Human Rights of Future Generations seek both to consolidate and develop existing human rights standards to enhance the protection and fulfillment of the human rights of future generations. They are a valuable guide to ensure that any action to strengthen solidarity with future generations aligns with international human rights law.
The intention is for this document to influence national, regional, and international governance processes, decision making, standard setting and jurisprudence, as well as promote social mobilization to advance the human rights of future generations. Their legal foundations can be found in international instruments, national legislative frameworks, and the laws and practice of Indigenous Peoples.
While this set of Maastricht Principles provide a new form of analysis grounded in existing law, their focus on future generations aligns also with the UN Secretary-General’s 75th UN anniversary vision Our Common Agenda (not to be confused with the 1987 Our Common Future) and the new CRC General Comment No. 26. These Maastrict Principles also come just in time for consideration in the context of the Summit of the Future, upcoming in 2024.
Photo: Youth demonstrating for serious climate action. Source: World Future Council.