By Azril Mohd Amin,Chief Executive Officer Institut Masa Depan Malaysia (MASA)
At the recently concluded meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on May 26, in Geneva, the UNCRC Chair, Ann Skelton, announced the adoption of the committee’s Draft General Comment 26 and shared important highlights of General Comment 26 (GC26) on children’s rights and the environment.
The official launch of the GC26 will be held on September 18, 2023 at the historic Palais des Nations, Geneva. It is expected to mark a significant milestone in recognising the fundamental human right of all children to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
This article aims to explore the key elements of the draft and shed light on the role that Malaysia, as a country that has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1995, should play in upholding children’s environmental rights in the face of the climate crisis.
By examining the draft comment and Malaysia’s commitments, this article highlights the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
First, the recognition of children’s rights — The draft GC26 reaffirms the rights of children as enshrined in the CRC, specifically in relation to the environment. It underlines the important principle of intergenerational equity, recognising that children have the right to inherit a healthy and sustainable environment from previous generations.
By explicitly acknowledging the link between child rights and the environment, the emphasis is on the need to safeguard children’s rights amidst the climate crisis. Malaysia, as a signatory to the CRC, is bound to uphold and protect the rights articulated within it, including the newly recognised right to a clean and sustainable environment.
A drastic and comprehensive action is required urgently more than ever as we are now experiencing a massive threat on our environment. Similar concerns have been expressed by many experts, including the renowned Sir David Frederick Attenborough, an English broadcaster, biologist, natural historian and author who at a recent UN high-level meeting called climate change “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced”.
According to him, “If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains. The poorest — those with the least security — are certain to suffer. “Our duty right now is surely to do all we can to help those in the most immediate danger.”
We must be very worried about the world we are going to inherit to our children.
Second, protection and participation — The draft GC26 places significant emphasis on both protection and participation. It highlights the duty of states to protect children from environmental harm caused by pollution, hazardous substances and the impacts of climate change.
Furthermore, the comment stresses the importance of involving children in decision-making processes that affect the environment. This inclusion of children’s voices and perspectives is key as they are not only vulnerable to environmental risks but also potential agents of change.
For Malaysia, it is essential to establish mechanisms that enable meaningful participation of children in environmental decision-making processes. This could be accomplished through creative educational programmes at primary schools, neighbourhood associations, youth townhalls and platforms that encourage children to understand the basic issues and express their views on environmental issues.
Additionally, Malaysia should ensure that environmental policies and regulations provide adequate protection to children, especially those from poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities who are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
Third, climate justice and equity — The draft GC26 recognises climate justice as a fundamental aspect of children’s rights in the context of the climate crisis.
It acknowledges the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities, including children. Malaysia, with its diverse population and varying degrees of vulnerability, must prioritise climate justice and equity in its environmental policies and actions.
To address this, Malaysia should integrate a values-guided, rights-based and equity-centred approach into its climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. This requires considering the specific needs and vulnerabilities of children, especially those from low-income households, indigenous communities and rural areas.
The government should ensure that climate-related policies and interventions are designed and implemented in a way that reduce environmental inequalities and safeguard the rights of all children.
Fourth, implementation and accountability — It is important to note that the draft GC26 provides clear guidance to states on implementing and monitoring children’s environmental rights. It emphasises on the integration of child rights into national legislation, policies and programmes related to environmental protection and climate action.
In this respect, Malaysia should take heed and be more proactive in exploring the possibilities of incorporating child rights perspectives into its national environmental policies, frameworks and laws.
Perhaps, it is high time that the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC), Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) establishes full-time and dedicated child rights focal points within the relevant ministries, conducting training programmes for government officials and enforcement workforce as well as engaging think-tanks and civil society organisations specialising in child rights and environmental advocacy.
Malaysia should establish robust monitoring, data collection, and reporting mechanisms to assess the impact of environmental policies on children’s rights. This can be done through regular reporting to the UNCRC and by engaging with independent national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and children themselves in monitoring and evaluation processes.
The five-year cycle of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, which Malaysia is currently undergoing and soon will be participating in its 4th cycle in early 2024 has proven to be an effective mechanism in ensuring accountability and transparency of government ministries and agencies in its human rights commitments including children rights, which are crucial elements of effective implementation.
In conclusion, the draft GC26 on child rights, environment and the climate crisis presents a significant opportunity for Malaysia to fulfil its obligations as a ratified member of the CRC.
By recognising the fundamental right of all children to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, Malaysia can prioritise climate justice, equity, and meaningful guided participation of children in environmental decision-making processes.
Through the integration of child rights perspectives, robust implementation and enhanced accountability mechanisms, Malaysia can contribute to creating a sustainable and equitable future for its children, ensuring their rights are protected amidst the worrying threats posed by the climate crisis.