Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and 15 other young climate activists from around the world have together filed a legal complaint against five countries for breaching the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). According to the petition, Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey have all knowingly contributed to climate change and thus neglected their obligations under the convention.
Climate change is known to affect the living conditions of millions of children. In short, changes in weather patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events pose great threats to people’s livelihoods and the security of living environments, thus affecting food security, access to clean water, and potentially causing forced migration. These, in turn, will affect the possibility of children to attend school and stay healthy, among other issues.
This complaint is the first of its kind, challenging several nations at once for breaking international law by accelerating climate change. There have been cases of young people suing their governments in recent years, but these petitions have been raised in front of national courts and only challenged one state at the time.
The complaint was submitted on September 23 to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, a group of experts who oversee the fulfilment of the CRC. In the complaint, the youth demand that the committee declare climate change a children’s rights issue and recommend the states do all that is possible to mitigate its effects, including improving international cooperation to tackle the issue. In addition, they demand full freedom of expression for children active in the battle against climate change.
The plaintiffs argue that all five countries have been aware for decades of what climate science says about necessary actions to mitigate climate change, and yet failed to act accordingly. Although the states have signed the Paris Agreement, none has yet done enough to fulfill it – for example, it has not promised to cut emissions enough to meet the 1.5℃ target.
According to the activists, the states have thus breached three specific articles of the CRC: the right to life (Article 6), right to health (Article 24) and right to culture (Article 30). In addition, they argue that the states have failed to keep the best interest of the child in mind, a general principle of the convention (Article 3). The youth behind the complaint have themselves experienced these rights being breached.
For instance, the health of two young people from the Marshall Islands has been compromised, as they have fallen ill with mosquito-borne diseases. These diseases have recently spread to the islands and are projected to become more common in many areas of the world because of changing temperatures. Two young people from Argentina and Brazil have both had their houses destroyed by storms, which have become more common due to climate change. Extreme events like heavy storms arguably cause an imminent threat to life, even in states with good capacities to prepare for them. As a third example, the complaint describes how two young people from Sweden and Alaska have had their right to culture compromised. Changing weather patterns are affecting their ability to continue with the reindeer herding and fishing traditions of their indigenous Sami and Yupiaq people. Although these specific examples only concern a few individuals, the stories are applicable to thousands, if not millions more.
The complaint is directed at Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey for several reasons. They are among the biggest contributors to climate change and, as members of the G20, also influential actors in global climate politics. In addition, they are among only 45 states that have signed an optional protocol to the CRC, called OPIC, that allows children to make a complaint to the committee. For instance, the UK and China have not signed the OPIC, and the US has, as the only country in the world, not even signed the CRC, thus making it impossible to challenge them through this petition.
The effects of the complaint are yet to be seen. However, it is likely to at least draw needed attention to the pressing concern climate change poses to children’s rights worldwide. The committee will next review the complaint and if it finds it applicable, request answers from the responding states. As is often the case with mechanisms of international law, the committee cannot force the states to change their policies. However, the states may feel an increasing need to honor a treaty they themselves have signed.
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