The One Ocean Hub Contributes to the UN General Comment on Children’s Rights and a Healthy Environment
Following the One Ocean Hub’s positive initial feedback on Zero Draft UN General Comment No. 26 on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change (Zero Draft). The General Comment was released in November 2022 and included reference to biodiversity and the ocean, which was warmly welcomed across our networks. The Hub has now submitted comments on the Draft to the UN Committee on Children’s Rights which are aimed at further strengthening the document. We also contributed to a joint submission by the Child Rights Connect Working Group on Child Rights and Environment, and Members of our network also contributed to the submission by the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE). This blog post outlines the key points made in the Hub’s submission on the Zero Draft: we welcome feedback from and engagement with other ocean experts.
Given the breadth of the intertwined global environmental crises (climate change, biodiversity loss and toxic pollution at the land/ocean interface), and the fact that children are the most vulnerable to these impacts, we warmly welcome the inclusion of references to biodiversity, ecosystem services and the ocean in the Zero Draft. The Hub had recommended the deepening of these linkages to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in the context of the thematic consultation on biodiversity, which we co-led in August 2022, and also in other consultations in which we participated in throughout 2022.
Our latest submission focussed on strengthening nine key areas in the the Draft: i) the intertwined global environmental crises (climate change, biodiversity loss and toxic pollution); ii) the notion of sustainable development; iii) the ocean; iv) biodiversity; v) children’s rights to food; vi) children’s right to culture, particularly for Indigenous children and children in small-scale fishing communities; vii) children’s right to education; viii) impact assessments; ix) business responsibility to respect children’s rights; x) international cooperation; and xi) the child-friendly version of the Zero Draft.
1. Intertwined Global Environmental Crises
The Hub supported the explicit and early recognition of a child’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a self-standing right in the Zero Draft, since it acknowledges that environmental degradation impacts the protection and fulfilment of all children’s human rights (A/HRC/34/27, Para 6; UN Doc A/HRC/RES/45/30, para 9.). To that end, we recommend references across the Zero Draft to:
- the three intertwined global environmental crises (climate change, biodiversity loss and toxic pollution), rather than singling out climate change;
- where possible, referring to “terrestrial, marine and other aquatic” ecosystems as they are all concerned by these crises and are also interconnected (to prevent overlooking water and the ocean), relying on the agreed language of Art. 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
These suggestions support future-proofing General Comment from later developments of guidance, recommendations and clarifications of States obligations considering the ocean-climate nexus, biodiversity and the marine environment.
2. Sustainable Development
We supported the recommendation of the Child Rights Connect Working Group on defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as coined in the 1985 Brundtland Commission Report; or suggest relying on the wording of Art. 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity of “sustainable use”.
Our research highlights that national interpretations of sustainable development often take a short-term perspective that is not compatible with the stages of childhood development across the Zero Draft (paras 20, 26, 53-55.) The cumulative pressures across climate change, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution, and the linkages between them (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2019) are critical, and connected to all of the stages of childhood development, as these threats can result in infant mortality, damage in utero, congenital anomalies, adiposity and damage to brain development during vulnerable stages of a child’s development, among others (see for example Rouget et al., 2020; Cordier et al., 2015). We therefore also suggest that Zero Draft indicates from the outset that integrating consideration of children’s rights in sustainable development requires a long-term perspective on environmental threats and their impacts on human well-being. Furthermore, building on arguments made by Peleg (2013) that current models of development are limited in their recognition of children’s agency and ability to express their own sense of health and well-being, we propose a more ‘hybrid conception’ of children’s right to sustainable development, where “the child’s present and future are recognised, intertwined and equally important” (Strand et al., in review).
Finally, we recommended adding reference to the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights (UN Doc A/77/290), to which the Hub contributed, which underscored that sustainable development tends to favour economic development, at the expense of the environment, culture and human rights (paras 20-26). In that connection, a note of caution could be added to the Zero Draft, following the wording of the Special Rapporteur, that prevailing development practices are lacking consideration of cultural rights, different values and worldviews. This is due to inequalities and stereotypes whcih prevent transformative change and based on colonial legacies that have shaped dominant conceptions of development. This deficiency has imposed a paradigm of “progress” that is not compatible with the understandings of affected communities.’ Furthermore, the Zero Draft would benefit from “an explicit link between the protection of children’s right to development and cultural rights as part of environmental, climate and ocean governance,” as has already been highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee’s finding in the Torres Islanders Case, that “a violation of States’ duties to protect the right to culture due to insufficient action to mitigate and adapt to climate change” (Strand et al., in review).
3. The Ocean and Children’s Rights
We welcome the inclusion of references to “marine pollution” and “marine biodiversity” in the Zero Draft, and note that the former term is interpreted broadly under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Regional Seas Conventions, to include ocean plastics, underwater noise, as well as ocean acidification. Sewage inputs and run-off from land-based sources (urban and agricultural), as all polluting inputs to the sea can impact both ecosystem (e.g. deoxygenation, chemical and toxics impacts on food chains, such as biomagnification and bioaccumulation) and human health (e.g. physical illness, impacts on children’s health and development). Even further offshore the impacts of marine pollution must be considered as permitted discharge from shipping, discarded/lost fishing nets (ghost fishing) and pollution from deep-seabed mining projects can also (indirectly) impact the quality of the ecological system and therefore the availability of ecosystem services that benefit children.
That said, it would be important for the General Comment to make more explicit references to the ocean, and the full water cycle, in the extensive section on climate change (mitigation, adaptation, finance, states’ obligations and business responsibility), so as to include, for example, sea level rise and subsidence, salt-water intrusion and storms (Holding et al., 2016; Masterson et. Al., 2014), which result from climate change and can have combined effects which severely threaten children’s rights in many developing states, including small island states (Martyr-Koller et.al., 2021). These events also impact children’s right to education and cultural rights, as outlined in the Torres Strait Islanders decision by the UN Human Rights Committee. In addition, water shortages, which may be worsened by loss of marine ecosystem services that contribute to the global water cycle as a result of climate change, will also affect children most and for the longest time (Morgera and Lennan, 2022).
Para.109 of the Zero Draft, refers to “tipping points” (thresholds beyond which certain impacts can no longer be avoided) as creating “greater risks in relation to children’s rights and climate change,” for example, threats posed to children by climate-related displacement, which lead to climate refugeeism (see broadly, the UN Human Rights Council in Teitiota v New Zealand) and orphans, as a result of more frequent and fierce storms [in the Pacific and Atlantic], sea-level rise and subsidence, and saltwater intrusion. Children in an overwhelming majority of the states affected by climate change are found in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and South Pacific, and are heavily reliant on their coastal marine environment (Techera, 2018; Betzold, 2015; Parks and Roberts, 2006). These climate-related impacts on the ocean raise issues of loss and damage, which has been on ongoing issue of intra- and inter-generational equity for small island developing states, as well as the overall issue of climate justice in regard to debt and other financial reparations (Lai et al., 2022; Perry (2021); Boyd et. al. (2021); Sealey-Huggins (2017); Moe-Lobeda (2016)). This has been recognized in the 2022 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change, to which we contributed, where he referred to the loss of “ocean territories and their associated ecosystems, livelihoods, culture and heritage” (A/77/226, para. 92(f)). In sum, more explicit understanding of these linkages is an important precondition for more concerted and integrated action, at all scales, on children’s human rights and inter-generational equity at the ocean-climate nexus.
Furthermore, an area which is missing from the Draft, is the effect on children of blue (ocean) crimes (Bueger and Edmonds, 2020), including those stemming from international and non-international armed conflicts such as piracy and other transnational organised crime (Witbooi et al., 2020 a;b). Children are especially vulnerable to human trafficking, the impacts of flags of convenience (Nordic Council of Ministers/INTERPOL Fisheries Crime Working Group (FCWG)/the North Atlantic Fisheries Intelligence Group (NA-FIG), 2018), and child labour in the fisheries sector (UNOCD, 2019; Large Ocean Nations Forum on Transnational Organised Fisheries Crime, 2018; Copenhagen Declaration, 2018; OECD, 2013). In addition to these impacts, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (Widjaja et al., 2020) as well as destructive fishing (Willer et. al., 2022; Febrica et.al., 2021a; 2021b; Lancaster, 2023 (forthcoming)) have deleterious impacts on the right to food and nutrition, and because of the pervasive environmental degradation documented in direct and indirect impact caused to the natural environment in post-conflict assessments (UNEP, 2009), prolonged health issues, which can have long-term effects on their development (Zheng Tongzhang et al., 2016).
Marine ecosystems provide a wide range of resources and ecosystem services that contribute to the survival of life on Earth and human well-being. Biodiversity is an essential feature of healthy marine systems, acting as a buffer against shocks and emerging threats to secure the ongoing provision of ecosystem services (Rees et al., 2020; Mace et al., 2014). Further, the intricate relationships between different (and diverse) biological components across a range of spatial and temporal scales are the foundations of critical ecosystem services from the provision of food to climate regulation. The ability of marine ecosystems to provide ecosystem services for human wellbeing depends on the health and functionality of their physical and biological components, but multiple and pervasive human activities accumulate to adversely impact these marine ecosystems at both local and global scales (Rees et al., 2020). Research shows that the resulting biodiversity loss is impairing the quality and quantity of ecosystem services with potential negative consequences for human health and well-being (Rees et al., 2020). Despite global efforts to designate 10% of the world’s oceans as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and a range of approaches designed to mitigate or avoid degradation through human use of natural resources (e.g. aims of net gain, no net loss etc) biodiversity loss continues (Niner et al., 2017).
Imperative to children’s rights to a healthy environment is the need to firmly link the 2030 targets for biodiversity set within the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2022) and the targets set within the Paris Agreement as marine ecosystems play a major role in the maintenance of a healthy climate through the cycling, sequestration and storage of carbon. Children will be the major beneficiaries of stronger and more ambitious targets for the protection and restoration of marine biodiversity in line with climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. The aptly named ‘blue carbon’ habitats (marine habitats that store carbon) also provide a range of co-benefits including improved water quality, flood protection, protection from coastal erosion, increased fish and shellfish abundance, and increased biodiversity (Wentworth and Furness, 2021)) and their loss can therefore lead to negative impacts on children’s rights (A/RES/76/72, paras. 221–234).
In addition, we recommend adding reference not only to the negative impacts of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation in the draft, but also lack of access to biodiverse areas (rather than just “green spaces”), that is essential for children’s right to health (e.g., faster recuperation time from surgical operations: CBD/WHO 2015) and to education (notably in terms of inter-generational transmission of Indigenous and local knowledge – see below).
5. Children’s Right to Food
We recommend underscoring more clearly the negative impacts on children’s right to food both from the perspective of food security and nutrition in relation to fish and seafood. Cheap and accessible fish and seafood is dense in nutrients and contains high-quality, readily digestible protein and essential amino acids (i.e., Omega-3), as well as micronutrients are very important for the health and development in children (Morgera and Lennan, 2022; Maulu et al., 2022). That fact that as a result of climate change impacts on the ocean (warming, acidification and deoxygenation), fish catches are decreasing in the Tropics due to shifting stocks, where populations are more dependent on seafood, and increasing in higher latitudes in regions with economies less dependent on fisheries is particularly concerning for several reasons (Pinsky et al., 2018).
Addressing the challenges of shifting fish stocks across geopolitical boundaries goes beyond the regulatory capacity of international fisheries law, requiring an integrated approach of the relevant legal frameworks including international climate, biodiversity and human rights law (Lennan, 2023a; 2023b). The UN General Assembly has called upon States to assess the risks of climate change on fish stocks and consider them when developing conservation and management measures and to identify and develop adaptation strategies (A/RES/77/118, paras. 18–19). However, children are often forgotten within this complexity, and must be included in any adaptation plans and measures concerning fisheries (Morgera and Lennan, 2022). The long-term potential for the ocean to act as a source of food and nutrition, and therefore aid the attainment also of the child’s human right to health is clearly threatened by acidification. If marine food chains suffer loss of key species due to ocean acidification, fish species which are valuable for their nutrition content may decline or disappear (Morgera and Lennan, 2022).
6. Rights of Indigenous children and children in peasant, small-scale fishing and other rural communities
We suggested that the draft can be significantly strengthened by referring consistently to:
- “Indigenous and local knowledge” whenever references to science are concerned across the General Comment (to reflect relevant international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, Arts. 8(j) and 10(c)); and
- Consider implications for intergenerational transmission of Indigenous and local knowledge.
In addition, we recommended adding reference to:
- The three safeguards of environmental and socio-cultural impact assessments, free prior informed consent and fair and equitable benefit-sharing in relation to proposed developments (including climate change response measures or conservation measures) in or affecting traditional territories and natural resources (Morgera, 2019 and 2020), to protect cultural rights and other culture-dependent rights of Indigenous children (Strand et al., in prep);
- Additional guarantees for the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights are also necessary where the General Comment refers to relocation (para 43);
- The respect and integration of “Indigenous and local knowledge.” This is in line with the IPCC and IPBES practices in widening the scope to other traditional users of resources, especially in regions where there are histories of colonisation and dispossession (Lancaster, 2023);
- Reflection on the relevance of UNDRIP, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and the SSF Guidelines, from the perspective of children’s human rights and the environment would be warranted in the General Comment, including with reference to children in small-scale fishing communities;
- Reference to “terrestrial, marine and other aquatic territories”, beyond traditional and Indigenous ‘lands’ (see Strand et al., in review).
Furthermore, additional reference should also be made to “children of peasants”, “children in rural communities”, and “children of nomadic groups” which are mentioned separately with a generic reference to discrimination (para 50) as similar guarantees for the protection of their world views and distinctive ways of life are provided at the intersection of international biodiversity and human rights law (Morgera and Nakamura, 2022), as reflected in the UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and the FAO Guidelines on Small-scale Fisheries.
7. Right to Education
Although the General Comment No. 26 refers to children’s rights to education, environmental education and existing guidelines on children’s rights to a healthy environment need to better recognise and promote a holistic systems approach to the environment. This involves recognising the connectivity and integration of aspects such as biodiversity, climate change, and ecosystem health across land-sea interfaces, and acknowledging people and society as part of this environment, instead of removed from it (Virapongse et al., 2016; Strand et al., 2022). This is particularly important as education and access to information for children enable them to understand how their rights can be infringed in the context of environmental governance and therefore support the exercise of children’s rights to participation and access to remedies.
The second recommendation on the right to education is the crucial importance of considering the interface of the right to education and cultural rights (Strand et al., in review). While we welcome the GC26’s models of ‘child-centred, child-friendly and empowering’ education, equipping children with skills for critical reflection on the environment (para 33) and outdoor learning (para 35), GC26 should also explicitly mention the importance of Indigenous and local knowledge and nature-based learning, as part of children’s right to education. The draft should make reference to the need to decolonize environmental education and ocean literacy, with a view to preventing discrimination vis-à-vis children from different cultural backgrounds, worldviews and life experiences, and rather nurture for all children appreciation and respect for the plurality (and pluriversality) of knowledges and cultures (see Strand et al., in review), as recognised by UNCRC Art 29.1c. This can also be supported by the integration of research on the disproportionate impact of climate change and environmental degradation (environmental justice, which is referred to in the zero draft of the GC24, but without sufficient specificity). Environmental justice has multiple, interlinked dimensions that the GC26 would benefit from making explicit, such as i) distributive justice ii) recognition, which also includes a notion of cognitive justice; iii) procedural justice; iv) contextual justice; and v) restorative justice (see Blue et al., 2021; McGarry et al., 2022; Strand et al., in review). These are crucial dimensions to address also the interface between the right to education and the prevention of discrimination.
There is also a clear opportunity for GC26 to reflect on children’s right to education and the human right to science, considering the role of education in supporting children’s right to benefit from scientific advancements and participate in scientific endeavours, so that children’s needs can inform research priorities (A/HRC/20/26, 2012; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No 25 (2020)). This would send a powerful signal, for instance, to the UN Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).
8. Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA)
We called on GC26 to recommend the integration of Child Rights Impact Assessments (CRIA) into already mandated environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments (including as part of the international guarantees to protect Indigenous peoples and other communities’ human rights on territories and natural resources). Integration of CRIA into the environmental and socio-cultural assessments for the conservation and management of marine living resources as required by an mutually-supportive interpretation of international fisheries, biodiversity, and human rights law, is also imperative to protect and fulfil the entirety of children’s human rights, particularly in the face of the impacts of climate change outlined in section 5 (Morgera and Lennan, 2022; Nakamura, Diz and Morgera, 2022).
We also argued that the key principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (non-discrimination; best interests; the right to life, survival and development, and the views of the child) should be used to assess the legitimacy and effectiveness of environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments that disregard potential negative impacts on children’s rights and/or have not appropriately supported children’s participation.
Furthermore, our research suggests that there are particular challenges in integrating cultural heritage and cultural rights in current environmental and human rights EIA practices, and we thus recommend reference to the inter-governmentally approved CBD Akwé: Kon Voluntary Guidelines (supported by the UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, Inter-American Court, CERC, etc), which call for integrating consideration of inter-generational transmission of knowledge (para 49) as part of CRIA.
9. Business and Children’s Rights
GC26 highlights the need for linkages between businesses and climate change (para 114), and underscores that businesses have responsibilities to “respect children’s rights and remedy violations of their rights in relation to the environment” (para 90). Once again, clear reference should be made to the inter-linked global environmental crises, as much guidance on business and human rights has been developed in the areas of biodiversity, toxics and procedural environmental rights generally (Morgera, 2020).
In addition, more emphasis should be placed on the roles and responsibilities of business in addressing environmental and human rights harms (paras 90-93) to align it with the need for human rights-compatible international investment agreements (UNGA A/76/238), and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which highlight the human rights of children in the Commentary of Principle 3 (state regulatory practice and functions) and Principle 13 (responsibility to respect internationally recognised human rights). These principles are reflected in regional instruments and jurisprudence in the European Union and Latin America & the Caribbean region, notably the EU Draft Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence and the Escazú Agreement respectively, and the recent decisions of the Inter American Court in the Case of the Miskito Divers (Lemoth Morris et. al v Honduras), and in Vera Rojas and Others v Chile. In Vera Rojas where the Court at para 76 specifically mentions that in “…its interpretational jurisdiction the text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child … necessitates the adoption of special protection measures …[which] was particularly important for children with disabilities …”.
10. International cooperation
The section on international cooperation, notably on international finance and technology transfer, should also be expanded from its current focus on climate finance to all other relevant international environmental obligations on financial and technological solidarity (examples of legal bases under the CBD have been provided in the track-changes version of the draft; others can be found under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the chemicals treaties). Here the GC could draw on the 2022 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd on States’ human rights obligations to provide funding for the Sustainable Development Goals (A/77/284).
More specific reference could be made to States’ duty to cooperate internationally to support and fund decolonial environmental education and ocean literacy as a way to support children’s procedural rights in the areas of the environment, as well as put in place other measures to support children’s procedural rights as environmental human rights defenders in international environmental policy processes.
11. Child-Friendly Version of the GC
When considering “best available science” as one of the four key concepts, the Child Friendly version states that “Governments must use evidence given by scientists to form their decisions”. Although we agree with this statement, it is important to also highlight Indigenous and local knowledge that can and should inform environmental decision-making” (Convention on Biological Diversity, Arts 8(j) and 10(c)).
Furthermore, although the Zero Draft briefly mentions “cultural life” and children’s “enjoyment of their own cultures” as part of a broad range of children’s rights where a healthy environment plays a role, the Child Friendly Draft does not specifically consider children’s rights to culture amongst the 9 children’s rights that are highlighted as being “related to the environment and climate change”. We argue that this is something that should be specifically highlighted in both versions of the future General Comment No. 26, as the ocean plays an integral role in children’s development-culture nexus and wellbeing across the globe (see Strand et al., in review; MacDonald et al., in prep).
Children’s “cultural life” and children’s “enjoyment of their own cultures” is also linked to “play”. “Play” is also linked to healthy development within children. Marine and coastal environments are essential spaces for children to play, rest, and enjoy leisure and recreational activities, which in turn support the protection of their rights to health, culture and education. In an English example, a national survey (Elliott et al., 2018) relating to people’s enjoyment, access, understanding of and attitudes to the natural environment, and its contributions to wellbeing is undertaken every year (Government of the United Kingdom, 2020). Children’s responses are included on behalf of an adult member of the family. In a review of survey data from between 2009 and 2016 the results demonstrate that both walking (beach/coast) and water-based recreation are popular. However, when compared to urban spaces, woodlands, forests and parks physical activity is not the primary motivator for time spent in marine and coastal environments and other more social activities (e.g. meeting friends) are preferred. In addition, marine and coastal spaces prove to be the most socially levelling environment with visits from across the spectrum of socio-economic groups (Elliott et al., 2018). Healthy marine and coastal environments must therefore be recognised for their role in contributing to childhood development through the provision of safe places to play, rest, and enjoy leisure and recreational activities.
Lennan, M. (2023b), ‘Bringing Climate Adaptation into International Fisheries Law’ PhD Thesis, University of Strathclyde (on file with author).
McGarry, D., Erwin, K. and Morgera, E. (2022) ‘What is Environmental Justice: Understandings from the Global South’, One Ocean Hub.
Strand, M., Shields, S., Morgera, E., McGarry, D., Lancaster, A. M. S. N., Brown, L. and Snow, B. (2023) ‘Protecting children’s rights to development and culture by re-imagining ‘ocean literacies’, The International Journal of Children’s Rights, in review.
Artwork: Margherita Brunori