The UN response to Greta Thunberg’s complaint came out yesterday. In 2019, Thunberg and other adolescent activists brought a lead case to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, seeking to demonstrate that inaction on climate change violates children’s rights.
It was a difficult law and human rights issue – something that he has long resisted when it comes to the environment, which has always been seen as a peripheral issue.
That is why the decision was innovative. Although it could not formally rule on the complaint, the panel accepted that a state actor can be held responsible for the negative impact of carbon emissions on children, both inside and outside the territory.
This reasoning means that a girl living on an island in the Indian Ocean, who will disappear due to climate change, could sue the United States for violating her rights.
I’m sure the reader can appreciate the far-reaching legal consequences this thinking could have on future climate litigation.
Right focus, wrong aim
The argument in the case is not that climate change is bad. We know. The argument is that states that contribute to climate change are negatively affecting children’s rights in a legally punishable way.
The countries that endured the international public slap in this case, however, were Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey. But these are not the largest emitters and polluters in the world.
They were selected as the target of the case by Thunberg et al, not because of the worst climate impact, but simply because they have ratified the Additional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: allowing cases to be brought directly against them by minors .
The world’s biggest polluters have not. So it’s a bit of a “catch who can”, and that should be taken into account in subsequent discussions.
The countries in the case of UN Greta are the countries of classical international law (Europe and Latin America) that have agreed that their human rights practices can be reviewed and questioned.
The biggest carbon emitters, on the other hand, have not. Even the United States has not even ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (possibly the only functioning country in the world that has not), much less the Additional Protocol.
He used to work at OHCHR, the UN division responsible for treaty bodies – panels created to decide cases like this. One of the most common obstacles to accepting a new case, which we saw on a daily basis, was the fact that a given state had not accepted the Additional Protocol to a human rights treaty, allowing an individual to file a complaint directly.
Very often, the biggest offenders do not accept the competence of a UN committee to review their conduct. On the other hand, states that are better at defending human rights, like Sweden, for example, voluntarily submit to review.
In some cases, in the early years of the UN human rights mechanisms, this would lead to absurdities, such as Sweden becoming the country with the most recorded human rights violations in the world.
Early UN ruling is just the beginning
Thunberg’s complaint is also very important as a test case: one that develops, for the first time, the nexus between human rights law and the climate. It reinforces the principles of this reasoning and the legal parameters.
The cross-border element is key. Traditionally, in human rights law, citizens could only sue their own countries for human rights violations at the UN level.
This case changes that principle, and setting aside the fact that the panel cannot yet render a judgment because activists have not exhausted internal measures, we still saw significant progress.
Most importantly, however, we must remember that the five countries listed are not the bad ones when it comes to climate change.
The case is valid in principle, but it highlights a well-known truth of international law: countries that buy the principles participate in the process, while violators do not want to be scrutinized.
Iveta Cherneva is a Bulgarian author who focuses on security policy, human rights and sustainability. She has worked in five UN agencies over 10 years and was a 2020 finalist for the position of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism