University of Pretoria’s Professor Ann Skelton
University of Pretoria’s Professor Ann Skelton

'Children’s climate change victory hailed

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Oct 12, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - In a historic decision, the UN Child Rights Committee (CRC) has ruled that a State could be found responsible for the negative impact of its carbon emissions on the rights of children both within and outside its territory.

This follows the UN Human Rights Council last week recognising access to a clean and healthy environment as a fundamental right.

The CRC issued its decision on Monday after examining a petition filed by 16 children from around the world – including Ayakha Melithafa from South Africa - against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey. They claimed that these five countries had failed to take necessary preventive measures to protect and fulfil children’s rights to life, health, and culture.

The children argued that the climate crisis was not an abstract future threat and that the 1.1°C increase in global average temperature since pre-industrial times had already caused devastating heat waves, fostering the spread of infectious diseases, forest fires, extreme weather patterns, floods, and rise in sea level. As children, they claimed to be among the most affected by these life-threatening impacts, both mentally and physically.

The committee held five oral hearings with the children’s legal representatives and the representatives of the States’ parties between May and last month. It also heard the children directly – this was also a procedural “first” as the committee had not previously held oral hearings under its complaints procedure – the complaints were usually received and considered in writing.

University of Pretoria Professor Ann Skelton is a member of the UN Child Rights Committee, and is the chairperson of the complaints procedure. Arriving back in South Africa from Geneva as news of the decision broke, she said a key finding of the committee was that emitting States were responsible for the negative impact of the emissions originated in their territory on the rights of children, even those children who were located abroad.

“The collective nature of the cause for climate change cannot absolve a State from its individual responsibility that may derive from its emissions.”

Skelton added that it was necessary for there to be a causal link between the harm and the State acts or omission, and that the harm should be foreseeable.

“In this case, the committee determined that Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey had effective control over the sources of emissions that contribute to the causing of reasonably foreseeable harm to children outside their territories. It concluded that a sufficient causal link had been established between the harm alleged by the 16 children and the acts or omissions of the five States’ parties for the purposes of establishing jurisdiction, and that the children had sufficiently justified that the harm that they had personally suffered was significant.”

The committee, however, considered the petition inadmissible as the children had not taken their case to local courts in the States they were complaining about.

“There is a requirement to exhaust legal remedies that may be available and effective in the countries concerned before bringing their complaint to the committee. The committee was therefore unable to examine the merits of the case and adjudicate whether the States’ parties had violated their obligations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols.”

The CRC also wrote an open letter to the authors of the petition, in which they explained the case in simplified language. Their message to the children was that the committee hoped they would feel empowered by what they had achieved through their case, and to continue with their advocacy work on climate change.

Cape Times

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