Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
25 November 2020
Greetings and thank you for this invitation. Ordinarily, we would be marking the conclusion of the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Unfortunately, the Conference did not take place this year – because of a virus transmitted from animal to humans.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of threats to our well-being that can be caused by increasing intrusion and damage, to our environment. It illustrates the risks of inaction.
The persistence of this pandemic is yet another setback to our efforts to address climate change.
We must carry on, regardless of the delay to the COP talks, because our world cannot afford to wait another year.
Our children cannot afford to wait another year.
Children suffer disproportionately severe and long-term impacts from damage to the environment, because of their unique physiology and developmental needs. They are also vulnerable to many diseases that are amplified by climate change, such as malaria and dengue fever; according to UNICEF, almost 90 per cent of the burden of disease attributable to climate change is borne by children under the age of 5.
Extreme weather; natural disasters; scarcity of water and lack of food, due to the impact of climate change on crops and livestock – all these factors are already harming to children around the world.
But that's not all. Climate change also contributes to tensions and conflicts. It increases poverty – and poor families often cannot afford to send their children to school, or give them health-care. It causes land erosion – literally wiping out the ground your home and life are built on. Already, natural disasters are forcing millions of families to leave lands where their ancestors may have lived for generations.
The alterations caused by climate change to the physical, economic, political and social context in which children live will have immediate, immense and devastating impacts on their ability to thrive and their long-term physical and mental health.
And as these forces continue to gather strength, these impacts will deepen and multiply, carrying on into future generations.
We must act quickly to ensure the least possible harm is done. Today's children, and future generations, have a right to thrive, in a greener world.
I'm often asked why I care so much about this issue. Well, Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, used to say, "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."
I think that's right. We need to care for others, around us, in the present, and we must also prepare, for our young people – and coming generations – a future world that can nourish lives of dignity, freedom and peace.
I am convinced that global recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment can lead to stronger policies, at all levels, to protect our planet, our children and our future.
Recognizing and implementing the right to a healthy environment is crucial, to ensure a safe and stable climate; a toxic-free environment; clean air and water; and safe and nutritious food.
I applaud the actions of children and young people to defend this right. The struggle for climate justice – and effective, urgent climate action – is a struggle for all human rights.
Marching peacefully and persistently; engaging in strategic litigation; devising climate solutions; overturning obstacles, and overcoming threats, these young people are rightly demanding that their rights and voices be taken into account.
We have a duty to ensure their voices are heard, and not just heard – acted on.
My Office will continue to support the rights of children and young people to demand change, in support of a healthy environment.
Climate litigation is a promising strategic choice when Governments fail to act.
In December last year, in the case of
Urgenda Foundation versus The Netherlands, the Dutch Supreme Court drew on jurisprudence from the European Court and found that climate change creates an imminent danger to the rights to life, and to private and family life. The Court ordered the Dutch Government to undertake substantial, specific steps to increase its climate mitigation efforts.
Urgenda decision empowers people across the 47 Council of Europe countries to demand their governments do more to address the climate crisis.
It has further energized the human rights-based movement for climate action.
In many similar cases, people – including children and young people – are demanding a safe and stable climate, as a matter of fulfilling their rights.
They're receiving support from many parts of the international human rights system including –Special Rapporteurs, filing amicus briefs; human rights treaty bodies, issuing statements and General Comments. The UN Secretary-General has also given the cause of climate justice strong support – including his emphasis on the rights of future generations.
These and other efforts by the UN system and international human rights mechanisms are essential. But they are not a substitute for effective national and international action by Governments.
We need a just transition to more appropriate economic structures, and internationally coordinated responses based on solidarity.
We need laws and incentives that protect our human rights, including the right to a healthy environment.
We need to implement massive energy efficiency and conservation practices.
We need to root out the discrimination, which expose communities to climate harms.
By the end of this year, we need all States to submit more ambitious, human rights-based nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement’s built-in mechanism to ratchet up ambition every five years. The Climate Vulnerable Forum’s Midnight Survival Campaign makes it very clear that for the world’s most climate vulnerable countries, this increased ambition is not a matter of choice but one of survival.
And we need to continue working for a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment – one in which all children, everywhere, both now and in the future, will be able to thrive and grow.