The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has explicitly affirmed children’s right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment by issuing United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 26 which is a comprehensive interpretation of Member States’ obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 26 calls on Member States to take action to preserve the environment for the betterment of the lives of children.
This Convention adopted in 1989 and ratified by 196 states – including Zimbabwe – outlines universal children’s rights such as life, survival, and development. A UNCRC General Comment provides guidance on what these rights imply for a specific issue or area of legislation. The now-published “General Comment No. 26 on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change” explicitly addresses the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity, and pervasive pollution, outlining countermeasures to protect children.
General Comment No. 26 specifies that States are responsible not only for protecting children’s rights from immediate harm but also for future violations of their rights due to States’ actions or inaction today. Particular attention is to be paid to the disproportionate harm faced by children in disadvantaged situations, leaving no child and no place behind.
The 196 states that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child are urged to take immediate action, including shifting to renewable energy sources, improving air quality, ensuring access to clean water, transforming industrial agriculture and fisheries to produce healthy and sustainable food, and protecting biodiversity.
The UNCRC General Comment No.26 states that children’s views must be considered in environmental decision-making and stresses the critical role of climate and environmental education in preparing children to take action, advocate, and protect themselves from environmental harm.
General Comment No. 26 assists in interpreting States’ commitment under the Paris Agreement to respect, promote, and consider their child rights obligations when taking action to address climate change. It also clarifies that child rights impact assessments must be undertaken for all environment-related legislation, policies and projects, regulations, budgets, or other decisions.
States will have to report periodically to the UN Committee on their progress in protecting children’s environmental rights.
Zimbabwe’s emblematic legislative policy instruments reflect our regard and priority on children’s rights – and their needs – in the critical climate change blueprints including the National Climate Policy and its child-friendly version, revised Nationally Determined Contributions and its Implementation Plan as well as the draft National Adaptation Plan. The Government of Zimbabwe ensures that the voices of children and young people are captured in the climate change debate and the country’s position towards the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Further, the Government is supporting schools in the country to put in place disaster risk management plans while strengthening climate change learning, climate-resilient infrastructure, and basic services – such as renewable energy and water supply – and creating more practical learning spaces to foster environmental stewardship amongst Zimbabwe’s children, including through the Clean Green Initiative.
At the Africa Climate Summit held in Nairobi in September 2023, Zimbabwe reiterated its commitment to intensify adaptation efforts such as early warnings and disaster risk reduction, climate-proofing infrastructure, sustainable water management, and climate-smart agriculture for food and nutrition security.
This directly reduces the negative impacts of climate change on children. For sustainability, this calls for enhanced action in schools and communities to be better prepared for the more frequent and intense weather events that come with climate change in Zimbabwe.
In conclusion, the General Comment is an urgent call for countries, including Zimbabwe, to prioritize action in every aspect of childhood impacted by climate change, such as the rights of a child to protection from violence and harm, education, nutrition, safe water, and a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Noting that the General Comment will be viewed within the confines of our socio-cultural context and shall be guided by our available pieces of legislation. The climate crisis is a child rights crisis. Children have contributed least to climate change-related issues but are at the greatest risk from increasingly frequent floods, droughts, storms, and heat.