UN Guidance on children’s human right to a healthy environment calls for protecting marine ecosystems, transforming industrial fisheries, and preventing marine pollution 

By Elisa Morgera and Sophie Shields

August 2023: The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has published its awaited new General Comment No. 26 on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change. The General Comment clarifies that States must take immediate action to protect children from the triple planetary crisis (climate emergency, biodiversity loss and pervasive pollution) as “an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally,” including by protecting marine ecosystems, preventing marine pollution and transforming industrial fisheries.  

This blog post provides an initial reflection on the relevance of the General Comment for the ocean governance and ocean research. As part of an increasingly vast network of civil society, UN bodies and other partners focused on children’s environmental rights, the One Ocean Hub is commitment to integrate and raise awareness about General Comment No. 26 in all its research and engagement activities on human rights and the ocean. 

Children’s rights to a healthy ocean 

The UN Committee clarified that “Children have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”, which is implicit in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is directly linked to children’s rights to life, survival and development, health, adequate standard of living, and to education, including the development of respect for the natural environment. Hub research has already underscored the importance of protection children’s right to education and to culture in the context of ocean literacy, as way to also prevent discrimination against children.  

As recommended by the Hub, the UN Committee has embraced a holistic understanding of the inter-dependency between a healthy environment and children’s human rights, as underscored in the indication that “While the present general comment is focused on climate change, its application should not be limited to any particular environmental issue” (para 5). Accordingly, the General Comment incorporated the substantive definition of everyone’s human right to a healthy environment, as proposed by UN Special Rapporteur David Boyd: “clean air, a safe and stable climate, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainable food and non-toxic environments” (paras 63-64).  

Significantly from an ocean perspective, the General Comment No. 26 clarifies that for the realisation of children’s right to a healthy environment, States should take immediate action to: 

  • conserve, protect and restore biodiversity;  
  • prevent marine pollution, by banning the direct or indirect introduction of substances into the marine environment that are hazardous to children’s health and marine ecosystems; 
  • ensure a fair and just transition of energy sources and invest in renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency to address the climate crisis; 
  • transform industrial fisheries to produce healthy and sustainable food aimed at preventing malnutrition and promoting children’s growth and development (para 65(c)-(f)). 

The reference to “substances” in relation to marine pollution can be interpreted to include introduction into the ocean of greenhouse gases, therefore establishing a link to the impacts of climate change on the ocean, and the General Comment makes an explicit mention also of ocean acidification (see Hub legal research papers on the ocean-climate nexus here and here).  

Relevant also to ocean plastic pollution, the General Comment underscores that “Exposure to toxic pollutants, even at low levels, during developmental windows of increased vulnerability can easily disrupt the maturational processes of the brain, organs and the immune system and cause disease and impairments during and beyond childhood, sometimes after a substantial latency period. The effects of environmental contaminants may even persist in future generations. States should consistently and explicitly consider the impact of exposure to toxic substances and pollution in early life” (para 24). 

The General Comment No. 26 also clarifies cross-cutting obligations for States that are relevant to the protection of the marine environment, namely to: 

  • take appropriate preventive measures to protect children against reasonably foreseeable environmental harm, paying due regard to the precautionary principle; 
  • assess the environmental impacts of policies and projects, mitigating foreseeable harm if it is not preventable;   
  • provide for timely and effective remedies to redress both foreseeable and actual harm; 
  • take deliberate, specific and targeted steps towards achieving the full and effective enjoyment of children’s right to a healthy environment;  
  • develop legislation, policies, strategies or plans that are science-based and consistent with relevant international guidelines related to environmental health and safety;  
  • refrain from taking retrogressive measures that are less protective of children; and 
  • set and enforce environmental standards that protect children from disproportionate and long-term effects, considering that children are far more likely than adults to suffer serious harm, including irreversible and lifelong consequences and death, from environmental degradation (paras 69, 71 and 73). 

In addition, the UN General Comment underscored that “business activity is a source of significant environmental damage, contributing to child rights abuses” with “unsustainable fishing practices” as a specific example (para 71). The other examples can also be related to ocean activities, such as offshore oil and gas extraction, and disposal at/into the sea of toxic substances. 

All these clarifications are relevant for the ongoing international processes on clarifying States’ obligations to address climate change, including at the ocean-climate nexus. 

Child rights-based approach to environmental protection

On the whole, the General Comment No. 26 calls for the application of a child rights-based approach to the environment, which requires the full consideration of all children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols (para 6). This entails the following considerations for designing decision-making processes: 

  • children must be recognised and fully respected as environmental actors and child human rights defenders, as agents of change, and their demands for urgent and decisive measures to tackle global environmental harm should be realised; 
  • the process of realising children’s rights is as important as the result; and 
  • particular attention is paid to the multiple barriers faced by children in disadvantaged situations in enjoying and claiming their rights (para 4 and 7).  

Where an environmental decision may have a significant impact on children, a more detailed procedure to assess and determine children’s best interests must be conducted, to provide opportunities for their effective and meaningful participation. This requires that: 

  • the differential impact of environmental decisions on children, in particular young children and other groups of children most at risk, as measured against short-, medium- and long-term, combined and irreversible impacts, interactive and cumulative impacts and impacts in the different stages of childhood; 
  • States should explicitly and consistently consider all factors required for children of all different ages to survive, develop and thrive to their fullest potential; 
  • States should design and implement evidence-based interventions that address a wide range of environmental determinants during children’s life course (para 25). 

Ultimately, States’ obligations to take all adequate and necessary environmental measures that are protective of children’s rights depend on: 

  • ensuring children’s well-being and development, taking into account the possibility of future risk and harm; 
  • taking into account the possibility that environmental decisions that seem reasonable individually and on a shorter timescale can become unreasonable in aggregate and when considering the full harm that they will cause to children throughout their life courses; and 
  • consider structural and long-term challenges arising from environmental conditions that may lead to direct threats to children’s right to life and require taking appropriate measures to tackle those conditions, for example, the sustainable use of resources needed for covering basic needs and the protection of healthy ecosystems and biodiversity (paras 17-19 and 21). 

The UN General Comment No. 26 also makes explicit reference to States’ obligations to undertake measures to meaningfully engage with Indigenous children and their families in responding to environmental harm taking due account of and integrating concepts from Indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge. The Comment then calls for “comparable measures… regarding the rights of children belonging to non-Indigenous minority groups whose rights, way of life and cultural identity are intimately related to nature” (para 58), such as children in small-scale fishing communities

The process up to this point and the way forward 

In addition to the game-changing clarifications of States’ duties to protect children’s human rights in environmental decision-making, the preparation of the UN General Comment No. 26 has been remarkable. A “diverse and dedicated children’s advisory team, comprising 12 advisors of between 11 and 17 years of age, supported the consultation process undertaken for the general comment, with 16,331 contributions from children, from 121 countries, through online surveys, focus groups and in-person national and regional consultations” (para ). This provides an example that other international processes on human rights and the environment should follow (see Hub research paper on children’s right to be heard in international ocean-climate fora, and our proposed framework for children’s participation here). 

Further, many other partners across academia and civil society have provided inputs, including inputs from the One Ocean Hub and a Hub-led thematic consultation on biodiversity and the ocean (see here and here).  

Moving forward, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will monitor States’ activities on the basis of the UN General Comment No. 26 to ensure that States protect children’s rights in their environment-related actions. 

The One Ocean Hub is now working with our partners in the Children’s Environmental Rights coalition, and the Working Group on Children’s Rights and the Environment, which supports the reporting of children’s rights violations in relation to the degradation of the environment, to develop new research papers and guidance on respecting children’s rights to a healthy environment in the context of the implementation of the FAO Small-scale Fisheries Guidelines and the Global Biodiversity Framework, as well as in ocean literacy and ocean research. 

Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Reduced inequality
  • Climate action
  • Life below water