Advancing understanding of the role of the ocean in protecting children’s rights

By Michael Sweeney

As a Strathclyde research intern at the One Ocean Hub, I worked towards raising awareness of the unique role of the ocean in the protection of children’s human rights, including by helping to address the potential impacts of climate change to adversely affect nearly all of children’s human rights. This blog post summarizes the main findings from my period of research and outlines how continued research under the One Ocean Hub in this area can contribute to international processes on human rights.

More detailed information can be found in a policy brief [EM1] on the importance of a healthy ocean for children’s human rights and a paper [EM2] on the relationship between Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life under Water) and children’s human rights. These publications are part of the broader research of the One Ocean Hub on human rights for transformative ocean governance.

A healthy ocean and children’s rights

The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children with a range of human rights. These include the right to life, development and survival (article 6), the right to the highest standards of health (article 24), the right to education (article 28), the right to enjoy culture (article 30), as well as political and civil rights (articles 12 to 15).

It is increasingly acknowledged internationally that there are important connections between the rights guaranteed under the Convention and the environment: a healthy environment is necessary for the child to be able to live and develop. In his 2018 report, the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, explained the linkages between the human rights of the child and a healthy environment (including a in a children-friendly format). In his 2020 report, the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics, Baskut Tuncak, argued that the Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the right of the child to a healthy environment, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly. This is because exposure to hazardous substances and toxins impacts on children’s rights to life and health, which states are legally obliged to protect under the Convention. In addition, the right of the child to health requires states to take into consideration the risks and dangers of environmental pollution when they are taking steps to address problems of disease and malnutrition. Also in 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that the right to a healthy environment is essential for enabling children to live, thrive and survive.

Research gaps

Despite this clear recognition of the importance of the environment for the protection of children’s rights, there has been limited discussion of the unique role which the ocean has in the protection of children’s rights. For example, three high-profile UN reports on children’s rights and the environment do not include any reference to the  ocean. These are:

  • the 2016 Report of the UN High Commissioner on the protection of the rights of the child in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN Doc A/HRC/34/27

the 2018 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment on children’s human rights, UN Doc A/HRC/37/58;

the 2020 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on ‘Realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment’, UN Doc A/HRC/43/30.

The 2005 General Comment in which the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child discussed environmental threats to the child’s right to play also falls short of making any refence to the ocean: it mainly focuses on urban factors such as housing density and transport.

There is also insufficient attention in academic research on the relationship between the health of the ocean and children’s human rights.

Why is a healthy ocean important?

The ocean acts as a source of food for 3.5 billion people. It provides children with access to fish which contain vital nutrients such as omega 3. These nutrients are vital for proper fetal development and cardiovascular health. Ocean and coastal areas can also provide children with an environment to play, learn and socialise with others.

The ocean also makes an important contribution to managing the impacts of climate change (as discussed in this Hub video), which are expected to most negatively affect children compared to other sectors of the population. Ocean dwelling organisms such as phytoplankton can produce between 50% to 70% of the earth’s oxygen through photosynthesis.  Ocean plants such as seagrass and mangroves help to store around 50% of the carbon dioxide which is absorbed by the ocean.

Marine pollution and ocean acidification are detrimental both to the health of the ocean and the protection of children’s human rights. For example, the child’s right to health can be compromised through the development of neurological conditions stemming from the consumption of fish which has been contaminated with methylmercury. The child’s ability to access fish can also be threatened by ocean pollution, which reduces marine biodiversity and results in a decline of fish species. The main ocean pollutants include heavy metals from extractive activities, pesticides, nitrates and phosphates. These pollutants find their way into the ocean from land-based activities such as farming, aquaculture and the extractive industry. Recent research has identified the presence of microplastics in the human placenta, which has raised concerns about possible health consequences for the developing foetus. Microplastics are prevalent across the ocean seabed and in marine animals (see also previous Hub posts here and here, and in this video).

An increasingly acidic ocean may also be unable to absorb carbon dioxide emissions as efficiently as before. Ocean acidification is a consequence of the absorption of carbon dioxide emissions from the earth’s atmosphere. This will mean that its ability to help mitigate the effects of climate change will be diminished. Given that climate change is the primary threat to children’s rights, any reduction in the ability of the ocean to store carbon emissions may have catastrophic consequences for children worldwide. As well as threatening their right to life, climate change and the extreme weather events which are associated with it will  have far reaching consequences for the child’s rights to health, education, culture and play.

New international initiatives on children’s rights and a healthy environment

There are upcoming opportunities for the relationship between children’s rights and a healthy ocean to be recognised. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has launched a new process to develop a General Comment that will focus on children’s rights to a healthy environment, with special attention being paid to the impacts of climate change. The general comment is to act as an authoritative guide to the States who have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition, the leaders of UN bodies and organizations have recently  issued a joint commitment on ensuring the promotion and recognition of the right of children to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This commitment also includes the goal to ensure that children are able to meaningfully participate in climate action and in the review and implementation of UN policies.

Adequate consideration of the role of a healthy ocean in these initiatives is essential to ensure an effective protection of children’s human rights, and could also ensure that new constituencies contribute to global, national and local efforts to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean to the benefit of the newest and future generations of children. Furthermore, the ocean should be given appropriate attention in the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, UK, in the light of the increasing engagement of children in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The One Ocean Hub is carrying out further research on children’s rights and a healthy ocean, and is collaborating with the international Children’s Environmental Rights’ Initiative to integrate this research in relevant international processes and capacity-building and training tools. The hub will also raise these key points at the Climate COP (see our events here).

Photo: Eric Nathan