Highlighting the role of the ocean in the context of children’s rights to a healthy, safe and sustainable environment in the midst of a climate crisis

By Sophie Shields, University of Strathclyde (Inspiring Children’s Futures Institute and One Ocean Hub)

Ghana. Photo: Nessim Stevenson

‘The climate crisis is many things, but it is also a child rights crisis.’- Phillip Jaffé

Work on a new UN General Comment on Children’s Rights to a Healthy Environment continues (see here and here), with a zero-draft announced to be made available for public comment in October 2022, and the finalization of the Comment in April 2023. To contribute to the Comment, a conference was organized with the participation of several members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The One Ocean Hub was invited to share findings relevant to children’s human right to a healthy environment at the climate-ocean nexus.

Key points raised at the conference

On 5th-6th May 2022, the 12th international conference “Code red, the planet is burning! Children’s rights to a healthy, safe and sustainable environment in the midst of a climate crisis?” fostered proactive, interdisciplinary dialogue between stakeholders, including children, in relation to children’s human rights and the climate crisis. The conference also highlighted innovations and good practices which support children in multi-level environmental advocacy, and created space for knowledge exchange and deepened knowledge, both legal and scientific, to support the consultation of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment 26 on children’s rights and the environment.

Conference speakers presented in sessions on four key thematic areas: the climate crisis and children’s rights – international perspectives; the fight for the climate – children and young people’s experiences and actions; education for sustainable development and rights; and policy issues and perspectives.

Prof. David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, reminded attendees of the one billion children who are currently in countries facing an extremely high risk of climate crisis. Conference attendees also heard from child human rights defenders, such as Bach and Kartik, from Terre des Hommes’ Child Advisory Board on UN General Comment 26, who spoke on empowering children and young people to exercise their right to be heard in consultations about the future of the environment which children will inherit.

Further contributions came from speakers such as Professor Ann Skelton and Professor Benyam Mezmur, members of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, who discussed strategic litigation relevant to children’s right to a healthy environment, as recently demonstrated through the ‘climate change case’, where 16 child human rights defenders and climate activists filed a petition against five of the world’s largest emitters under the Optional Protocol on a Communications Procedure (OPIC) under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Despite the inadmissibility of the case, the Committee issued a landmark ruling. The ‘climate change case’ was the first time an international body had ruled on climate change, stating that states have a ‘cross-border’ responsibility for the effects of climate change on children. The climate change case was also the first time the Committee has held oral proceedings under the OPIC, signalling a strong development in participatory processes with children. This Protocol basically provides “children with the right to appeal to an international mechanism specific to them.”

The One Ocean Hub’s contributions

One Ocean Hub Director, Professor Elisa Morgera, presented to the conference on children’s human right to a healthy ocean and safe climate. Central to this discussion was asserting the, often absent, right to a healthy ocean within the right to a healthy environment. Prof. Morgera considered how children’s human rights are dependent on a healthy ocean, both substantively and procedurally, as we face serious regressions in biodiversity, access to safe and nutritious seafood, and the displacement of indigenous and coastal communities. And so, in looking forward to GC26, it is critical that together we:

  1. Support a holistic approach to the environment, moving away from notions of non-integrated environmental issues towards human rights at the nexus of climate change, biodiversity and the ocean.
  2. Refer to the right to a healthy ocean explicitly, so it is not forgotten in discussions of the right to a healthy environment.
  3. Recognise children as rights-holders, and facilitate their meaningful participation in environmental, ocean and climate decision-making at all scales.
  4. Clarify that children’s human rights entail clear, binding legal obligations which uphold the principle of intergenerational equity in international environmental law and the law of the sea, integrating the interpretation of due diligence obligations under international environmental law and the minimum standards of conduct under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
  5. Clarify the content of children’s right to environmental education and their participation in its creation, prioritising raising awareness and identifying capacity gaps in relation to the ocean and its importance for children’s right to a healthy environment, participation, and the right to culture, among others.

The conference was hosted by Haute école pédagogique Valais (HEP-VS), Centre interfacultaire en droits de l’enfant (CIDE), Université de Genève, Haute École de Travail Social, Institut international des Droits de l’enfant (IDE), Service cantonal de la jeunesse, & Terre des Hommes.


As we look forward to the imminent UNCRC General Comment on the right to a healthy, safe and sustainable environment, there is a continuous need to highlight and make accessible the linkages between children’s human rights and a healthy ocean and safe climate. Adults have a key, central role in facilitating the implementation and realisation of children’s human rights in relation to the environment, so clarifying State obligations under international law on the protection of the marine environment is needed.  Alongside the measures outlined above relevant to General Comment 26, giving the voices of children due weight in critical decisions which will affect generations to come remains a new area of research and practice for international and national decision-making processes on the ocean (as Hub researchers and partners discussed at the Glasgow Climate COP).