Race to give children new human right as 'high risk' threat looms

The climate crisis is worsening, so the United Nations has stepped in to protect children.

Our kids’ access to food, education, housing and medical care are all being threatened by increasingly unstable weather, so the United Nations has stepped in and urged 196 countries, including Australia, to better protect them.

Overnight, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) released General Comment 26, a new guideline with a special focus on protecting them from the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse and pollution.

The document has been released as natural disasters continue to impact the globe — much of the Northern Hemisphere is suffering catastrophic wildfires and last week we reported that thousands of baby penguins died in Antarctica because their icy homes melted.

The future is expected to get worse and according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres it is children who will be "bearing the brunt". The World Health Organization warns the climate crisis is the biggest health threat to humankind. It expects between 2030 and 2050 the climate crisis could cause 250,000 extra deaths every year, from diarrhoea, malnutrition, malaria, and Australia’s biggest natural killer, heat stress.

The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has published General Comment 26 to help protect children from the climate crisis. Source: Yahoo/Getty
The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has published General Comment 26 to help protect children from the climate crisis. Source: Yahoo/Getty

Why UNICEF's child rights advocate is hopeful

UNICEF Australia’s climate expert Philippa Lysaght told Yahoo News Australia that General Comment 26 comment gives her "hope".

General Comment 26 aims to ensure kids have a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but it goes further by:

  • Including what a state’s responsibility is to protect children from climate change.

  • Ensuring that young people are involved in helping to mitigate the impact of the emergency.

Ms Lysaght believes it's the first comprehensive step towards protecting, preparing and prioritising children for the climate emergency. “Children are really suffering the biggest impact of the climate crisis, not just in terms of their physical health, but also longer-term impacts on mental health,” she said.

One of the most important elements of General Comment 26 is that it links the climate crisis with the child rights crisis.

“I’ve been working in child rights for some time and over the last 10 years we’ve seen the climate crisis only framed as an environmental crisis, but it’s not,” Ms Lysaght said.

“You look at the impact on children. About half of the world's children are now living in areas with extremely high risk from the impacts of climate change — 2 billion children breathing unhealthy levels of air pollution in the air.

“So having this focus now that is very specific to children's rights, is critical.”

What are the UN Rights of the Child?

The UNCRC contains 54 articles that set out how governments should work together so children can reach their full potential. They include the following rights:

  • To be treated fairly.

  • Have a say about decisions affecting you.

  • Live and grow up healthy.

  • Be safe no matter where you are.

  • Get an education.

  • Be able to play and have fun.

Will the new comment actually help children?

As an advisory board member to UNCRC, humanitarian aid organisation UNICEF helped collect a massive 16,331 submissions from children to help inform the comment. Including the thoughts of children was important to the process as all too often they’ve been left out of key decisions that will impact their futures.

The comment’s biggest failing is that it’s not actually binding, and instead merely provides a framework for international treaties, laws, policies and practices that impact children.

But Ms Lysaght is hopeful that ahead of this year’s COP28 climate talks, it will help focus governments and remind them urgent action is needed.

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