Environmental protection central to Africa’s Agenda for Children


18 June 2021

Compiled by Josephine Chiname-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

Introduction and Background

There is an important link that exists between the physical environment that children occupy and the enjoyment of their rights and the quality of lives they lead. Over the years, the discussion on the impact of environmental damage on children’s rights have gained momentum. Environmental damage has an impact on children’s lives today and in the future. Environmental damage can have irreversible, lifelong and even transgenerational consequences and whilst environmental harm affects people at any age, children are particularly more vulnerable due to their evolving physical and mental development and status within society. Yet, despite various research reports explicitly linking environmental harm to child rights violations, increased awareness of environmental crises, the inclusion of children environmental rights in key child policy and discussion platforms in Africa is still in its infancy.

The reliance of many African countries on extractive industries for improved economic growth and development makes African children vulnerable to environmental harm. Children living in extractive host communities suffer violations of their rights to life, development, health, food, water, education, culture, play and other rights as a result of such activities. Despite its potential and, in some instances, actual contribution to economic growth, the extractive industries in many parts of Africa is fraught with major issues impacting on the environment and on the wellbeing of host communities. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the climate change reality. Although children contribute less to environmental degradation they bear the brunt of the effects.

On the 16th of June 2021, the African continent celebrated the Day of the African Child (DAC) which was first established in 1991 by the then Organization of the African Unity. The day aims at raising awareness on the situation of children in Africa.  This year, the theme for the DAC was “30 years after the adoption of the Charter: accelerate the implementation of Agenda 2040 for an Africa fit for children.”Agenda 2040, which was adopted in 2016, seeks  to elaborate on aspects of Agenda 2063 relating to children, and accelerate efforts towards the implementation of the African Children’s Charter. According to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the main objective of Agenda 2040 is to restore the dignity of the African Child and establish long term strategies that will contribute towards sustaining and protecting African children rights

It is the purpose of this blog post to reveal that while the Agenda 2040 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child do not specifically refer to the right to a healthy environment for children, there are articles and sections of both instruments which have a link to the right which is a key opportunity for a comprehensive and systematic continental framework for monitoring, reporting on and availing redress for environmental child rights abuses.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Agenda 2040 and the right to a healthy environment

Many international human rights treaties were adopted at a time the discourse on environmental rights as human rights was underdeveloped. The result is that many such treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights do not specifically refer to the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. In recent years, international human rights law has however been developed to cover that right. Thankfully, the main treaties that deal with children’s rights have Articles that make reference to the right to a healthy environment. For instance, Article 24(2) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) provides a direct link between the environment and children’s right to the highest attainable standard of health. At the continental level, Article 14 (2) (h) of the African Charter the Rights and Welfare of the Child also links the right to a healthy environment to the best attainable state of physical, mental and spiritual health. Also, Article 11(2)(g) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child provides that among the goals of education is “the development of respect for the environment and natural resources.”

Like the Charter, Agenda 2040 does not specifically mention the right to a healthy environment in its 10 aspirations. Issues relating to child friendly criminal justice and education are specifically mentioned within the document. However, despite specific mention, there exists a link between a number of the aspirations and the right to a healthy environment. Of importance to the right to a healthy environment are aspirations relating to survival and healthy childhood. The corelation of the agenda and the environment is clearly derived from Aspiration 4, 5 and 10. Also, given the indivisible nature of human and children rights, the right to a healthy environment is a precondition of the enjoyment of the basic rights to life, health, adequate food and housing, and traditional livelihood and culture. There is therefore a need to take action to ensure that children’s right to a heathy environment is safeguarded as a healthy environment is a precondition for children’s wellbeing. Without it they cannot grow up and become healthy members of society.

On DAC 2021, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), launched a comprehensive report which identifies progress made, challenges encountered by African governments and set priority areas in the implementation of Agenda 2040. The report also exposes emerging challenges and guides future strategies and interventions for the protection and promotion of children’s rights in Africa. In the production of this report, the ACERWC, civil society organisations, children, and other stakeholders, missed an opportunity to input how environmental harm is affecting the achievement of the agenda 2040 and actions that governments need to take.

Learning Opportunities for ACERWC and Africa

The actions that have been carried out at the United Nations level on the right to a healthy environment gives nuggets on what needs to be done at the Continental level. For instance:

  • The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (the Committee) dedicated its 2016 Day of General Discussion to the topic of children’s rights and the environment. This resulted in over 250 experts, NGO and UN agency representatives, academics and child activists meeting in Geneva for the discussion on 23rd September 2016.The day was a milestone in bringing together knowledge on the environment and children’s rights across different areas of expertise.
  • In 2018, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment submitted a report to the Human Rights Council on the rights of children and the environment. The report clearly indicated that States must do more to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of children in relation to environmental harm.
  • As a result of actions of children and young people around the world, including Zimbabwe, the Committee also made a commitment to develop a General Comment relating to children’s rights and environment with a special focus on climate change.

Also, over the years, civil society organisations like the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association and its partners like Terre des Hommes have been working tirelessly to advance the environmental rights of children. Through the #MyPlanetMyRight campaign, the organisations are calling for the universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment though an optional protocol to the UN CRC. This is an initiative that the ACERWC and African Governments can adopt at a Continental level.

Call to Action

In light of the above, we are thus calling on:

  • The ACERWC to include discussions on children’s right to a healthy environment in their processes, monitoring and practices as it is central to the achievement of Agenda 2040.
  • The ACERWC to develop a general comment on Children Rights and the Environment in the context of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child as there is a need to provide a substantive elaboration of the meaning of the right as per the Charter.
  • African Governments to take concrete actions to safeguard children’s right to a healthy environment especially in the context of extractive industries and climate change.
  • African governments to support the resolution for an optional protocol on the universal right to a healthy environment when it comes at the UN and Africa Union level.
  • Everyone reading this blog post to visit www.myplanetmyrights,org and sign our petition.

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