Child environmental rights defenders

Child environmental rights defenders work across the planet on every continent to protect and promote human and environmental rights. These children often work at great personal risk of reprisal and targeting to defend the rights of current and future generations.

Children are working to defend the environment 

Child environmental rights defenders are in some ways both tragic reminders of the desperate extent of the global climate emergency and incredible beacons of hope for the future of our planet and all the life it contains. It is no longer possible to ignore the inextricable links between environmental justice and social justice, and child environmental rights defenders are keenly aware of this.

“I want a better future. I want to save my future. I want to save our future. I want to save the future of all the children and all people of future generations”.

Ridhima Pandey, 11 years-old (Amnesty International, 2019).

Children are, and have been for generations, involved in the protection of the environment. The injustices and violations of the protracted climate emergency are immeasurably devastating. Decades of neoliberal world politics along with immense escalation in industrial activities following colonialism and the ensuing industrial revolutions, alongside poorly regulated consumer capitalism, has seen the sustained destruction of natural habitats as well as the ravaging of homes, communities and the wellbeing of human, plant and animal life around the world (Galeano, 1971).

Who are child environmental rights defenders?

Any child can be an environmental rights defender. It is not an official title or category and the term can encompass children who are activists, writers, orators, campaigners, organisers and more (United Nations General Assembly, 2019). So, a child environmental rights defender is a human rights defender under the age of 18 who focuses on environmental issues. There is no definition of a human rights defender, or an environmental rights defender, and so it is first and foremost a child’s actions that make them a child environmental rights defender (OHCHR, 2019).

“We don’t talk a lot about how the crisis impacts black, brown, indigenous, and low-income communities […] When we talk about the climate crisis and we don’t talk about these communities that are being affected, we create this circle of it becoming a white issue, or an issue that doesn’t care about black and brown bodies, and that allows for solutions that don’t care about black and brown bodies.”

Isra Hirsi, 16 years-old (City Pages, 2019).

Although child human rights defenders and (adult) environmental rights defenders are gradually receiving more attention. Child environmental rights defenders continue to be insufficiently recognised, supported and protected. High-profile child environmental rights defenders include Timoci Naulusala, Mari Copeny, Aditya Mukarji, Lilly Platt, Nadia Nazar, Holly Gillibrand, Jamie Margolin, Autumn Peltier (known as the ‘Water Warrior’) and Greta Thurberg, as well as each child quoted in this article. Most of these children, however, do their work far outside of the spotlight.

Action taken by children for the environment

These children work to defend human and environmental rights and to counteract the theft and destruction of the environment as well as the human rights violations and injustices that environmental destruction brings about. Children who defend the environment often do it at great personal risk. Many of these children are indigenous to the land which they defend, and being an indigenous minority adds further vulnerability by heightening the risk of the work that they do.

“The silence on environmental injustice seems to be intentional. Most people do not care what they do to the environment. I noticed adults were not willing to offer leadership and I chose to volunteer myself. Environmental injustice is injustice to me”

Leah Namugerwa, 15 years-old (Amnesty International, 2019).

Such children’s rights defence can include resistance to activities including agribusiness, deforestation, logging, mining, fracking, and creation of plantations, pipelines and dams, which regularly threaten the health, lifestyle and existence of many communities. Although much environmental defence is done by adults, children play central and important roles. Some children lead, or participate in, protests and organised activism as well as speaking out to local media, political stakeholders, wider civil society and the international community in order to raise awareness of the violations that environmental destruction inflicts upon communities. These activities may take place online or offline. There is a growing focus on the need for intersectional environmental rights defence which centres inextricable issues such as racial justice, class inequality and indigenous people’s rights.

“The first ones to get affected are indigenous communities who are displaced because of infrastructure and disrespect of the land. It’s not just coming from black, brown, and indigenous communities being victims of pollution that the fossil fuel industry brings. It’s much deeper than that. Whose spaces are they choosing to contaminate and build infrastructure in the first place?”

Xiye Bastida, 17 years-old (Vox, 2019).

Child environmental rights defenders may also engage with the United Nations (UN). One example is a 2019 landmark legal complaint from a group of 16 child environmental rights defenders from 12 different countries, filed to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) against Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey for failing to uphold their obligations to child rights. The complaint demanded that the states in question immediately address the global climate crisis, and held them accountable for their perilous inaction. Announcing the petition in New York, 14 year-old Alexandria Villaseñor said:

“We are here as victims of the pollution that has been carelessly dumped into our lands, air and sea for generations, and as children whose rights are being violated. Today, we are fighting back”.

Alexandria Villaseñor, 14 years-old (Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, 2019).

The rights of child environmental defenders

Children possess all human rights, with additional child rights, including the right to be protected by adults – and adults’ corresponding obligation to protect children. Children who resist environmental destruction and its consequences are often exercising some of their most fundamental rights as humans and as children. Their right to participation, to be heard, to freedom of expression, opinion and assembly as well as their rights to life, non-discrimination, water, health and to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment are also being claimed. 

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you”.

Greta Thunberg, 17 years-old (NPR, 2019).

Rights specific to child environmental defenders

The General Assembly of the United Nations formally recognised the importance of environmental rights defenders in March 2019 at the Human Rights Council’s 40th session. It is recognised that environmental rights defenders are one of the rights defenders at most risk and who most often experience reprisals and violent retaliation, with children being especially vulnerable (United Nations General Assembly, 2019). Indeed, the UN called on states to “provide a safe and empowering context for initiatives organized by young people and children to defend human rights relating to the environment”, acknowledging the role of child environmental rights defenders, the importance of their work and their need for protection (United Nations General Assembly, 2019). 

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child dedicated its 2018 Day of General Discussion (DGD) to the theme of ‘Protecting and empowering children as human rights defenders’ and section 4.4.6. of its Outcome Report addressed child environmental rights defenders specifically, noting they could face unequal access to resources, needed increased protection and that enforceable regulations should be developed for the business sector to help achieve this (CRC, 2018). Furthemore, the 2016 DGD focused on child rights and the environment, and noted that children defending the environment often faced violent attacks, stating that “States should provide a safe and enabling environment for activists defending environmental rights, and owe a heightened duty of care to activists below the age of 18” (CRC, 2016).  

There are no binding international human rights that are specific to child environmental rights defenders and it is paramount that these children be provided with increased protection. 

Rights from international law

Children who act as environmental rights defenders exercise many of their most fundamental human rights, as enshrined in core instruments of international law including the Child Rights Convention (‘CRC’ and its two Optional Protocols) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include their right to be heard (UN Convention on the Right of the Child, 2009), their right to participation, their rights to a healthy environment, to freedom of expression (article 13, CRC), freedom of thought, conscience and religion (article 14, CRC), freedom of association and peaceful assembly (article 15, CRC), privacy (article 16, CRC) and information (article 17, CRC). Equally, children working to defend their environment are often invoking their rights to non-discrimination (article 2, CRC), best interests (article 3, CRC) and survival and development (article 6, CRC). These are only some of the core rights that children possess. Each child possesses many further rights under international law and according to the national law in their country of residence.

Rights from regional laws

The Escazú Agreement addresses questions of environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although it does not mention children explicitly, article 9 affords binding protection to ‘Human rights defenders in environmental matters’. This has been an extremely important legislative landmark, since, as repeatedly highlighted by international human rights organisations, dozens, or even hundreds of environmental and indigenous human rights defenders are killed in Latin America every year. This has been a “historic milestone for environmental democracy” and is largely thanks to the tireless work of Latin American civil societies (Civicus, 2018). 

Although there exist many other regional mechanisms that address environmental rights, including for displaced people (such as the Kampala Convention), those which provide explicit rights to environmental rights defenders are few and far between. Many states and international organisations have developed ‘soft law’ approaches to provide these rights by creating policies and guidelines – such as the United Kingdom’s 2019 policy paper on support for human rights defenders (HM Government, 2019). Such actions do not go far enough, do not enshrine legislative rights or obligations to protect rights defenders, and often do not prevent states from continuing to overlook rights defenders and act outside of their best interests. 

Written by Josie Thum 
Last updated on June 15, 2020


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