The right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment has become one of the most important and heated political issues. As many experts point out, it is obvious that a healthy environment is a prerequisite to full enjoyment of human rights. Given children’s vulnerability to environmental harm, it is a crucial and urgent mission to realize children’s environmental rights. This must be done by setting new standards for governments, including through an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
This issue is close to my heart as a long-standing campaigner for children’s rights. I was the Japanese focal point of the global campaign calling for an Optional Protocol to the UNCRC on a Communications Procedure, which allows children from State Parties to the Protocol to bring complaints about violations of their rights directly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This was adopted in 2011 and, excitingly, has recently been used by 16 children in a landmark official complaint to protest a lack of government action on the climate crisis.
Now I am consistently calling for an additional Optional Protocol on children’s right to a healthy environment, a critical topic that was not fully addressed during the drafting process of the Convention in the 1980s.
“Given children’s vulnerability to environmental harm, it is a crucial and urgent mission to realize children’s environmental rights. This must be done by setting new standards for governments, including through an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).”
I have seen how children’s rights and the environment intersect in tragic ways through my work. I am a university teacher of SHOKEI GAKUIN University located in Miyagi, Japan- one of the three prefectures most severely affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, followed by a tsunami and the melt-down of the Fukushima nuclear plant. I lost a female student who attended my class by a tsunami and it is still a very emotional memory for me.
I shared my experience and insight at the Conference on the Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child 2012-2015, convened on 20 -21 November 2011 in Monaco. I called on the participants to make a new Optional Protocol to the UNCRC on children’s right to a healthy environment.
At the 2016 Day of General Discussion (DGD) of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Children’s Rights and the Environment I had the privilege of presenting research to the committee on how the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake affected children’s vital connection to nature with long-term effects.
I also was invited to the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI) expert consultation for the East Asia and the Pacific region which took place in October 2019 in Indonesia. Here I noted that while natural disasters and environmental concerns, such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, look distinct from man-made disasters, there are clear overlapping areas, such as nuclear accidents and radioactive waste resulting from the 2011 East Japan Great Earthquake.
Following CERI’s expert consultation, I started planning activities in which Japanese children can learn, discuss and raise their voices about their right to a healthy environment. Their inputs will contribute to a Global Charter on Children’s Rights and the Environment that CERI is developing, and which will form the basis for the new Optional Protocol that we so urgently need.
First, on 16 May 2020, in collaboration with UNICEF Japan in Kobe, I organized a virtual seminar with 39 participants from all over Japan, including high school and college students, to discuss how children’s rights and a safe and healthy environment are intimately connected. At the end of our seminar, a college student commented that we cannot solve the environmental crisis by focusing on a single right. I was so pleased to hear her comment, which intuitively understood that interdependency is the fundamental characteristic of human rights, meaning that every right is equally important and interrelated to each other. As the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment presented to the UN Human Rights Council arguably elaborate, we need both political and civil rights, as well as social, economic and cultural rights to be integrated in a new Optional Protocol on children’s rights to a healthy environment.
On 24 July, I organized another virtual seminar in cooperation with a volunteer group for promoting remote learning, REMOCAN, and introduced the Japanese version of CERI’s “My Planet, My Right” on-line poll– a short survey children ages 18 under can take to contribute to the Global Charter on Children’s Rights and the Environment.
These are some of their messages to world leaders:
“I want you to cooperate with each other to solve environmental problems, not just considering the interests of your own country.”
“Reduce greenhouse gas emissions”
“Respect and save not only…powerful people, but vulnerable people.
On 8 and 9 August, I organized a two-day on-line workshop with a private high-school, Kunorigakuenkoto School. I started this workshop by asking the students which species will mourn if humans vanish due to COVID-19. Students responded that pets, animals at zoos and aquariums, livestock and souls of human ancestors would feel sorry for us. They recognized that homo sapiens might not be so welcome by other species as we annihilate them for our benefit. I shared a short television documentary in which elementary school students raised fishes and were asked if they would eat them. Some students refused to eat them as they had emotional attachments to the fish they raised and other students decided to eat them. The participants at my workshop discussed, reflected and finally recognized that we, humans, cannot survive without others’ sacrifices and shouldn’t be greedy beyond our basic human needs. The students also learned that they were very much privileged to have opportunities to learn about climate change and other environmental issues which is not accessible for many children their age.
On 9, 16, 23 and 30 October, I organized participatory classes with Kunorigakuenkoto School students. As we were approaching the U.S. presidential election day on 3 November, one day before the U.S.A. would formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, I introduced the case study of global climate change in Model Diplomacy developed and run by the Council on Foreign Relations. Under the Model Diplomacy format, the students are assigned roles to play in a simulation of a “National Security Council” meeting and asked to prepare policy recommendations to the U.S. president with solid justification and comprehensive analysis of merits/demerits of the policy they recommended. Half of the students recommended remaining in the Paris Agreement and the other half supported withdrawal. The former emphasized the global responsibility of the U.S. on climate change and the latter pointed out the negative impact of the Paris Agreement on local fossil fuels industries. However, both sides understood the importance of developing new technologies in mitigation of and adaptation to global warming. After class, students are now working on a consolidated policy recommendation which they intend to send to the White House.
I am currently planning to organize another online workshop in which the Japanese students will learn, discuss and formulate their own opinions on climate change, expecting their voices to be heard through the Global Charter on Children’s Rights and the Environment.
If you are looking to join me in the call for children’s right to a healthy environment, I invite you to sign up to CERI’s Action Network.